Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Windows XP SP3, like all service packs, caused problems on a small number of machines. We'll look at where those came from and what to do.

I have a computer with an AMD Athlon 64 processor with XP SP2. When I tried to update to SP3 right after it came out, it messed up my computer bad and I had to reformat. Now that support is done for SP2 is it safe for me to upgrade to SP3? Have they fixed the problems that caused the problems?

It's as safe as it ever was.

Only now it's just more important.

YES you should install Windows XP SP3. If you've had problems in the past, or are simply concerned, I'll tell you what I would do to install it safely and minimize the risk of problems.

It's Usually Not SP3's Fault - Really

By and large SP3 has been one of the most successful large scale service packs from Microsoft. I've probably heard fewer problem reports about it than any previous Windows XP service pack. In short: it worked just fine for the vast majority of computers.

"... SP3's failures are most commonly related to problems that were already on that machine to begin with."

Which doesn't help you at all if that wasn't you.

It seems obvious that if you install SP3 and it crashes or otherwise messes up your machine it must be SP3's fault, right? And Microsoft should darned well fix it.

Not as much as you'd think.

As was the case even more with SP2, SP3's failures are most commonly related to problems that were already on that machine to begin with. Be it malware or some other form of miss-configuration, in most cases SP3 didn't cause the problem, it simply exposed it.

Which means that in most cases there just wasn't really anything to "fix" in SP3.

That's why I say it's as good as it ever was. While it may well have been updated since it's initial release (I honestly don't know), those updates were likely not going to be related to what most people having problems experienced.

Three Step Process to Installing XP SP3 Safely

With that all in mind, here's the best way to install SP3:

  1. Back Up. This is a case where a full system image is called for. You want your entire system to be backed up in a way that it can be restored back to its original state if things do fail. My go-to software for this is Acronis TrueImage Home, but there are other tools. Above all make sure you have the means to restore the image - which usually means having or making a bootable recovery disk with your imagining tool.

  2. Clean Up.Run up to date anti-malware tools, a rootkit checker if your anti-virus tool doesn't actually have that built in yet. Make sure you have lots of disk space. Run CHKDSK. If you've been meaning to clean out files, temporary files, and other what not - even uninstalling programs you no longer use - now's a great time. The cleaner the machine to begin with the more likely your SP3 install is to work.

  3. Install It. Be it by allowing Automatic Updates to do its thing, visiting the Windows Update site or downloading the service pack manually, install it and see what happens. Most of the time you'll be just fine.

You can insert a step "2a" in there if you like to backup your machine once again after having cleaned it up. If you do run into a problem you at least wouldn't have to repeat all that cleanup work. Don't skip the initial backup, though, just in case your cleanup got a little to aggressive and you need to revert from it as well.

You Lied! SP3 DID Hose My Machine!

It doesn't happen often, but it does happen - there's no denying it. You won't believe me if I say it's something about your machine and not SP3 itself, and to be honest - that doesn't matter at this point.

SP3 hosed your machine.

That's why we started with a backup.

You have three possible courses of action at this point:

  1. Revert to your backup and do nothing further. Hope like heck that no further vulnerabilities are discovered that might put your system at risk, as you'll have no way to fix them.

  2. Revert to your backup and try to - for lack of a better term - clean it better. That's about as specific as I can get, because exactly what might be causing SP3 to fail has as many possible answers are there are failing machines. Perhaps there's leftover malware, perhaps there's a partial install of something that you aborted some years ago, perhaps there's just some kind of disk corruption - I can't say. See if you can find it and try again.

  3. Reformat and reinstall and then immediately install SP3. (Followed by all your apps, and then restoring your data from the backup you started with.)

Needless to say, painful as it is, the last option is the one I recommend if you've gotten this far. Install Windows and immediately let it take all updates, including SP3 as well as anything post-SP3. Do that before you install anything else. (In fact, once that's complete I'd be tempted to take an image backup of the system and save it as a place to restart should you ever need to reinstall Windows again - it'll have all those patches applied from the start.)

Once Windows XP is up to date with SP3 then move on to reinstall your applications and restore your data. Heck, you may even stumble on to something specific that has problems with SP3.

Then you'll have some idea of what might well have caused your SP3 install to fail originally.

But at this point you may not care, since you'll be past that.

A Final Request: Please Don't

I know many of you finding this page will have had problems installing SP3.

Please don't pile on in comments with your "SP3 doesn't work for me" story. We know. As I said in the article above there absolutely are folks who've had problems with it - typically reasons outlined in the article.

I really do sympathize, but ... unless you've followed every step in the article, right down to reformatting and immediately installing Windows XP with SP3, or unless you really have some specific new information, your "me too!" isn't really going to help readers looking to make a decision, and trying to find out how best to avoid what you've obviously experienced.

Thanks.

Article C4395 - August 13, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

1 Comment
Christopher Flanagan
August 14, 2010 3:50 AM

Thanks for the info.Very helpful.Would my PC still be secure enough without installing SP3?Chris

I think right now it may be, but I do not recommend it. As has been pointed out repeatedly, support for SP2 has ended - thus SP2-only machines will stop getting important security updates.
Leo
14-Aug-2010

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