Microsoft to allow serial-number free install of XP. PLUS: what’s in XP SP 3

After four years in the making Windows XP Service Pack 3 is almost ready for release. We’ve taken an in-depth look at it — and one aspect of it jumps out as being particularly interesting: the ability to install XP without a serial number.

But first a little background: Windows XP SP3 was recently released for public beta testing — “public” being Microsoft Connect and MSDN subscribers. As we’ve already seen SP3 is really more of a Windows rollup rather than a massive feature-enhancing package like SP2 was. However it seems that SP3 does contain some new functionality:

  • Descriptive Security Options UI – this makes the Security Centre a bit more intelligible and intuitive to try to prevent security problems caused by accidental misconfiguration
  • Enhanced security for Administrator and Service policy entries – this is an enhancement to System Center Essentials specifically for SP3
  • Black Hole Router Detection – this detects routers which are silently discarding network packets and is enabled by default in SP3
  • Microsoft Kernel Mode Cryptographic Module – this module (FIPS.SYS) is a FIPS 140-1 cryptographic module which runs as a kernel mode export driver
  • Network Access Protection – the NAP Client is network-based policy enforcement platform currently running on Windows Vista and Windows 2008 (beta) and will now be available in XP SP3

Most interesting though is this last feature:

  • Windows Product Activation – this gives you the functionality to install Windows XP without having to enter the product key as with Windows Vista and Windows Server 2003 SP2.

That is a really useful feature for testing Windows builds (unless you can memorise a 25-digit key) and will make life immeasurably easier for people who do system benchmarking or set up systems for roadshows and so on. Ever since Windows was created it has been a pain in the ass to have to find the product key before the software can be installed. Nobody begrudges the need to put in a product key at some point soon after installation and clearly Microsoft has heard the positive feedback from Vista’s keyless install process loud and clear.

There’s also some extra functionality which was previously available for Windows XP as separate downloads and has now been bundled into the service pack:

  • Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS) 2.5
  • IPsec Simple Policy Update
  • Microsoft Core XML Services 6.0
  • Microsoft Management Console (MMC) 3.0
  • Digital Identity Management Service (DIMS)
  • Peer Name Resolution Protocol 2.1
  • Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) 2
  • Windows Installer 3.1 v2

Being a major service pack there’s a whole swathe of bundled security updates and hotfixes. The full list will keep changing as time goes on and the service pack draws nearer to final release but at the current time there are 113 security updates and 958 hotfixes (that’s a LOT of hotfixes).

Windows XP SP3 beta

As with any beta there are a few known bugs. What is important to know is that users of Windows Embedded Windows Embedded for PoS Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs Windows Media Center 2005 or Windows XP Starter Edition shouldn’t install the beta. There are certain problems with all those operating systems which won’t be resolved in the beta. Windows XP Home and Professional users are safe to install the beta.

At present SP3 beta is only available for 32-bit platforms (for English Japanese and German editions) and the download weighs in at 335MB. Compared with 266MB for the 32-bit version of Windows XP SP2 in spite of not including as many new features SP3 is clearly a substantial upgrade. At present there’s no integrated media available for download and if Microsoft follows anticipated procedure integrated media will be available only to Volume License and MSDN customers. For everyone else slipstreaming is the way to go.

XP SP3 still doesn’t have a final release date but is anticipated to be in the first half of 2008 so it may or may be out at the same time as Vista SP1 which is scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2008.