Windows XP Service Pack 2 – Microsoft’s much delayed response to many of the security woes that have plagued Windows XP and Internet Explorer – is complete and will become available for download next week, the company says.

However, the highly anticipated upgrade is not yet available to end users. Microsoft is announcing only its release to manufacturing, and expects it to be posted on the vendor's Windows download site by early next week.

What's more, the company is urging individual users to avoid downloading it, because anticipated traffic jams are likely to produce timeouts or other problems. Rather, users should wait for the update to come to them.

Using Auto-Update

"The call to action is to enable Windows Auto-Update," the automated software upgrade system added in Windows XP, says Greg Sullivan, Windows product manager.

That way, people can acquire the patch – which is 80MB in compressed form – over the course of several days if necessary. Once the entire patch is downloaded, XP's Automatic Updates feature either prompts the user to perform the installation, or simply starts the process itself, depending on the user's settings.

Users who aren't sure whether they've enabled Automatic Updates, or who need help doing so, should visit Microsoft's Protect Your PC site, Sullivan says.

Through that same site, Microsoft will also offer to ship SP2 on CD to those who find the prospect of an 80MB download daunting. Microsoft acknowledges the process could take up to ten hours over a dial-up connection. The CD is free, and Microsoft will pay for shipping.

Getting the Fix

Windows XP installations on new PCs should start including SP2 within "a matter of weeks," Sullivan says. It will appear first on systems from build-to-order vendors, such as Dell, that don't built up a lot of inventory.

Shrink-wrapped copies of Windows XP probably won't include SP2 until late September at the earliest. However, Sullivan says that by the end of October all shrink-wrapped copies of Windows XP should include the update. New Windows XP packaging will prominently feature starbursts and other labelling promoting SP2 and its security features.

SP2 was originally supposed to ship in early 2004; another recent delay was in the spring. Microsoft had intended to release the service pack to manufacturing earlier this week, but stalled again briefly to ensure the software was ready, a spokesperson says.

Security Features

Security improvements take centre stage in the ambitious update, the largest since Windows XP was released.

One highlight is Windows Firewall, an improved successor to the Internet Connection Firewall, now enabled by default. Also new is the Windows Security Centre, where you can configure and launch a number of security features.

Microsoft is also providing a number of Internet Explorer tweaks, notably the debut of a pop-up blocker, and is adding code that makes running downloaded executable files more difficult.

But SP2 also includes upgrades that aren't security-related, such as improved support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networks, new features for Tablet and Media Centre PCs, and updates for XP's multimedia components.