How to make your Windows XP machine secure. Step One: take a month’s holiday

How to make your Windows XP machine secure. Step One: take a month’s holiday

David Pogue of the New York Times is one of my favourite technology commentators. He’s written a wonderful step-by-step guide to help his Microsoft-using readers avoid the perils of XP Service Pack 2, the upgrade that is proving a nightmare for many. To see the full enormity of what’s involved, it’s worth quoting:

“Seven Steps to a Smooth Service Pack 2 Installation

The best way to avoid problems is to be slow and methodical BEFORE you install SP2. Proceed through this checklist with all the care of an archaeologist unearthing a skeleton.

Step 1: Check your hard drive for free space
You need at least 500 megabytes of free space, or SP2 won’t even install. (For the speediest installation, defragment your hard drive first, if you know what that means.)

Step 2: Remove spyware
Spyware (software that you don’t realize you have because it piggybacked on something else you downloaded, like Kazaa) can gum up the works of an SP2 installation. Scan your hard drive using a free program like Ad-Aware ( or Spybot Search & Destroy ( to make sure your PC is free of these programs.

Step 3: Uninstall your virus and firewall programs

Installing Service Pack 2 on top of outdated utilities can produce two different unpleasant side effects. First, the new Security Center doesn’t recognize older versions of these programs. Second, your PC might not even be able to start up after the installation –which is, you have to admit, something of a drawback. (Later, after the installation, put your virus and firewall programs back — updated versions, if possible — one at a time.)

Step 4: Visit the Web page of your PC manufacturer
Search for information regarding SP2. It may turn out that your PC won’t work with Service Pack 2 unless you first update your BIOS (the built-in software that controls your keyboard, screen, disk drives, communications, and so on). In that case, you would find, at or (for example), a BIOS updater program that you’re supposed to download and run.

Step 5: Back up your stuff.

If you can back up your entire hard drive, do so; but at the very least, make safety copies of your photos, email, music, documents, and so on. Think of it this way: Your PC is going in for brain surgery.

Step 6: Visit the Windows Update Web site
A preliminary visit to is an important prerequisite. This Web site will actually interactively inspect your PC to see what condition your copy of Windows is in. If you[base ‘]re missing pieces, they[base ‘]ll be filled in for you — an important step before the big Service Pack 2 installation.

Click the Express Install link to begin. After a moment of computation, you’ll see a list of updates that Microsoft thinks you need, under the heading High Priority Updates. Installing them now will ensure that, when Service Pack 2 comes along, your copy of Windows will be everything the installer expects.

Step 7: Log off everyone but yourself
In other words, if you have Fast User Switching turned on, make sure all the other accounts have been signed off. You should now be ready to install SP2 successfully, whether from the Windows Update Web page, a CD that you’ve ordered, or from the Automatic Updates dialog box that appears on your screen one day.

Finally, another tip, courtesy of author David Karp, my own personal Windows XP guru: If your PC is your life — or your job, at least — you may want to take one additional, advanced step: Install a SECOND copy of Windows XP. This arrangement, known by geeks as dual-booting, takes some technical expertise. But it means that you can install SP2 on the duplicate copy of Windows to test your most essential programs. That way, you’ll know about any potential crises before committing your ‘real’ copy of Windows to SP2.”

Got all that? Alternatively, you can turn your Windows box into an aquarium and buy a Macintosh.