Q: I keep getting the yellow exclamation mark at the lower left corner telling me to install Service Pack 3. It has been out for a while now. Should I install it? — Laura
A: Microsoft (and many other software companies) use service packs as a means of distributing large collections of updates, fixes and enhancements.
Because service packs tend to make large-scale changes to a computer’s operating system, they are more prone to causing problems when they’re installed.
Service Pack 3 (SP3) for Windows XP was initially released in April and caused a number of issues that required further development and guidance from Microsoft.
As time went on, the main thing that changed for SP3 is that manufacturers of hardware and software became much more aware of those issues and, more importantly, the fixes for those issues.
SP3 has been around for long enough now that the major issues have all been worked out. We have installed it on thousands of computers we have serviced since it was released and have seen no patterns of problems — only an occasional conflict with an older program or hardware driver.
But that doesn’t mean you won’t have a problem if you install SP3, because your computer and its configuration are unique.
There is another hitch that most folks don’t think about: pre-existing issues.
Too often the last thing installed gets the blame for a problem that already existed but wasn’t exposed until the new program was installed.
This clearly occurred with SP3, as it became the whipping boy for anything that previously happened to a Windows XP system — kind of like Y2K was blamed for just about every computer problem at the turn of the century.
If your computer is experiencing any kind of an issue (slow startup, sluggish performance, error messages, lockups), addressing those issues before installing SP3 is critical. In our service facilities, we will only install SP3 on systems that have been properly serviced and pass our Quality Assurance tests.
SP3 is not required by Microsoft to be installed until April 2009, which is when support for Windows XP running SP2 expires.
The bottom line is that no one can tell you that you will or won’t have a problem if you install SP3 because of the uniqueness of every system and the underlying existing issues.
A very important step to take before installing SP3 is make sure you have a good verified backup of your critical data, or preferably an “image” copy of your entire hard drive in case you need to go back.
A quick test you can perform before deciding whether to install SP3 is to check the number of running processes in Windows. If there are too many processes running, you stand a higher chance of problems and should get the system cleaned up before installing SP3.
To check running processes, reboot your computer, then press Ctrl-Alt-Del to open the Task Manager. In the bottom left hand corner, look for the word “Processes.”
If you have more than 35-40 processes running on a desktop computer or 40-45 on a laptop, you should get your computer examined by someone who can dig into why you have the extra processes running.
This is also sound advice before you install any new program or security software in your computer.
For more information on running processes, you can read my previous columns at www.datadoctors.com/help by searching for “processes.”