With the April 2014 cut-off date for Windows XP’s extended support on our calendar, Microsoft has finally admitted that patching the biggest bug present in the OS has been unsuccessful.
For those of you still running Windows XP, Microsoft issued a couple of system updates this year to fix issues with how the system handles updates from the Windows Update service. The issue that pervades the OS to this day is that on boot, a well-used XP machine with Windows Update enabled can take forever to become usable.
Microsoft’s patches released in November and December of 2013 were supposed to fix this issue and remove the supersedence patch lists – but this didn’t work for the majority of Windows XP users. The company has now said that it will work on a new version of Windows Update to fix this problem and lists it as a top priority, but doesn’t know when this will be completed (if ever).
The way Windows Update worked in XP before the patches is that on start, the system first checks for any update and then looks to see if there’s a patch that supersedes the older one in case the version identified is outdated. It does this on every boot and can be disabled through the Services control panel and through the Group Policy editor if you’re on XP Professional.
On a brand new install of XP with Service Pack 3 this isn’t much of a problem because you don’t have to run through many updates to get your system fully patched up.
But every time after that, your machine pretty much checks every known patch and the relevant patch list since launch to see if it applies to you, regardless of whether or not it’s installed already.
In some cases, the patch lists can have more than 40 official patches that supersede the first one. In the case of Windows XP, every patch in an official list added after the initial one takes twice as long to be detected and analysed by the system, and its a quirk that’s been in Windows Update for a very long time.
As an example, if the first patch took five seconds to be analysed, the second bumps that up to ten seconds. The third then bumps that up by 20 seconds and the fourth adds on another 40 seconds. By the time you’re on the fifth one, it’s taken your machine over two minutes to analyse five updates, and there are still thousands more left to be run through.
Despite their work on the process, Microsoft elected to not fix the system in XP and instead created an entirely different one that is used in Windows Vista and later operating systems. While that one at least works properly most of the time, it still has issues occasionally.
For those of you still on XP then, I have a single recommendation: turn off Windows Update. If you’re still skittish about not receiving security updates, you can use the Microsoft Security Bulletin webpage to keep track of new updates for XP, although support ends in April 2014 anyway.
Or you could move to a more modern OS, like Windows 7, 8.1, or a shiny Linux distribution. Barring the use of old legacy software, or having no games that need a new OS, there’s little reason for anyone to be on XP in this day and age.