by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Windows XP SP3: The Perfect Reason to Avoid Upgrading to Windows Vista

May 02, 2008 8 mins
Operating Systems Small and Medium Business Windows

Companies resisting a migration to Windows Vista may want to carefully examine the latest service pack for Windows XP. After you look at XP SP3, says Steven Vaughan-Nichols, you won't even consider "upgrading" to Windows Vista SP1 anytime soon. He does a head-to-head technology comparison.

Now that Windows XP SP3 is arriving, is there really any good reason for a business to “upgrade” to Windows Vista? Ah … I can’t think of one.

I’ve been running XP SP3 and Vista SP1 since they were in late beta. At the moment, neither XP SP3 nor Windows Vista SP1 are available to the general public due to a problem with a Microsoft retail program. Once the update system is set to not upgrade systems with that software, Microsoft promises to turn the spigot back on for these service packs.

While I haven’t done any benchmarking with either one, I have lived and worked with both service packs. The difference between the two operating systems plus service packs is like that between day and night. Windows XP SP3 is the best Windows PC operating system I’ve ever used. In contrast: Windows Vista SP1 will finally run on one of my computers without any ongoing problems. That’s the best I can say for it.

Enough with generalities. Here’s what I’ve found in working with the pair over the last few months.

Window XP: Did You Say It Was a Pleasure to Upgrade?!

I used two test systems. One was an upgraded Gateway 503GR. This system uses a 3GHz Pentium IV CPU, 2GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon 250 graphics card, and a 300GB SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment). My other PC was a stock HP Pavilion a350n. This system has a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of dual-channel DDR333 SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) and a 120GB SATA hard drive. In other words, they’re state-of-the-art 2005 systems. Your offices are probably full of systems of a similar vintage: too new to replace, too underpowered for Windows Vista.

The service patch installation from its compressed 350MB executable download took less than half an hour on the 503GR. It was a much slower process on the a350n. It took slightly less than two hours. The problem is that the patch update uses a lot of memory. With 2GB of RAM, there was no swapping to the disk; with 512MB, the hard disk light was almost never off.

First, hard benchmarks aside, it certainly seemed to me that SP3 made Windows XP and its applications livelier than they had been under XP SP2.

As I worked with the two operating systems, I noticed that Windows XP SP3 is a more of a rollout of updates than the dramatic change in functionality that XP SP2 was. For instance, XP SP3 doesn’t come with Internet Explorer 7 (IE7) and Windows Media Player 11. If you have them installed, it does include the latest patches for those applications. Since many Web-based applications still expect IE6, that’s fine as far as I’m concerned.

The one truly new XP SP3 feature is Network Access Protection (NAP). NAP, which works with Windows Server 2008, is a security checkup protocol. It blocks any PC from joining a Server 2008-based active directory (AD) unless it meets the server’s security update policy standards. For example, if the server requires a PC to have the latest patches installed, it won’t let the PC login until it has gotten those updates.

XP SP3 also makes some needed improvements to older management and security programs. For example, it includes Microsoft Management Console (MMC) 3.0 and Windows Installer 3.1. It also brings existing protocols up to date. For instance, Wi-Fi networking now supports the new and improved WPA 2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access version 2) for security.

There’s another change I really liked a lot—as someone who can never find a product key when he needs one or who mistypes it, given half a chance. When you upgrade from a network share or from a CD rather than by using Windows Update, you don’t need to re-enter the operating system key. Since I always update from a local network share when I’m dealing with multiple systems, this is a win-win as far as I’m concerned.

Once in place, XP SP3 got along well with my existing hardware and software. Over the last few months, I’ve run Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft Office 2003, OpenOffice 2.4, Thunderbird 2.0.1x, Firefox 2.0.1x, Adobe Photoshop CS3, Adobe Photoshop Elements 6, Intuit Quicken 2008 and a host of other programs. Without a single hitch.

The bottom line? After a few days of working with the SP3 late beta I went ahead and updated all my XP systems to this patch. It was that good.

Since then, as SP3 starts and stops its way to its full release, I’ve gone ahead and updated to the RTM (Release to Manufacturing) version. It’s been the smoothest, most significant Windows upgrade I’ve ever had the pleasure of making. Yes, I said “pleasure.”

And then there’s Vista.

And Then the Bad News: Vista’s SP1

Vista, on the other hand, with its SP1 “upgrade,” continued to solidify its reputation as the second coming of Windows ME (Millennium Edition). Windows Vista SP1 is better than vanilla Vista. But, like putting lipstick on a pig: while the pig may look a little better, it’s still a pig.

As with XP SP3, I ran Vista SP1 on two computers. The first was an HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC. It has a hyperthreaded 2.8GHz Pentium D 920 dual-core processor and 2GB of DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. For storage, it uses a 300GB SATA hard drive; for graphics, it uses a NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE video card, which uses 256MB of the system’s RAM instead of coming with RAM of its own. The other test PC was a Gateway 835GM with a dual-core 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 820 with the Intel 945G Express chipset for graphics. To give this computer a decent chance to run Vista, I gave it 2GB of DDR RAM. Both computers used the Intel Azalia for audio support.

Again, I used the PC with the kind of resources you’re likely to have in your office. With that as a given, I didn’t think either computer system would deliver outstanding performance. My personal minimum configuration for Vista is 3GB of RAM, a dedicated graphics processor with 512MBs of RAM to call its own and a 2007 or newer dual-core processor (like, say, a 2.33GHz Intel Core2 Duo E6550). Still, these systems should run Vista decently.

Rather than try to upgrade either PC to Vista, I wiped the systems and started with a fresh foundation. Vista, in my experience, does not work and play well with upgrades from older versions of Windows XP, or even Vista for that matter.

Despite that precaution, I still ran into hardware incompatibly issues. The NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE wouldn’t work properly until I burned a fresh Vista SP1 DVD with the NVIDIA ForceWare 169 Release drivers patched in. The audio chipset, even though it’s as common as dirt, also proved to be a problem. I finally got it to work by downgrading to an older Microsoft Vista driver for the chipset.

All that done, while the Vista experience control assured me that both systems could run the Aero graphics interface, the only Aero feature that worked was translucency. Even then, I would sometimes get a completely black screen for a moment, when switching applications, before the new application would come to the foreground.

That nuisance aside, while applications ran sluggishly on the Vista SP1 systems, at least they performed better than they had with plain old Vista. Well, that is, if the applications didn’t need to call on network resources.

On my small network, which usually runs a hybrid AD/domain infrastructure and can be switched to a pure AD model and to a LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) framework, I found that Vista SP1 delivered awful network performance no matter what my LAN looked like. Finding the servers on my tiny 25-system network running on Fast Ethernet took over a minute. And I hadn’t seen file copying this slow since the days of 10Mbps Ethernet.

I also ran into several networking problems that required hands-on configuration changes. For example, Windows Vista SP1 can’t login and use many NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices. To fix that, you need to adjust a network login default, which is hiding in Vista’s security policies . I was also able to get Vista’s network file copying and moving performance up to a reasonable level by turning off a “feature” in Vista’s TCP/IP stack).

Do I really need to go on? Windows Vista is still a system resource hog that doesn’t work well and requires far too much expert tweaking to deliver even decent, never mind good, performance. For businesses, XP SP3 is clearly the better option in terms of stability, security, and hardware and software compatibility.

For more opinions and migration recommendations regarding Vista, see these related articles:

  • Don’t Skip Vista, Forrester Study Says
  • Should Microsoft Throw Away Vista?
  • Gartner Explains Why Windows Is Broken
  • Four Migration Lessons from Vista Early Adopters

If you want to try a radical change on your enterprise desktops, Mac OS X or Linux, either Ubuntu 8.04 or SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10 SP1, are all far more promising than Vista.