After a series of bewildering Windows NT 4.0 service packs caused problem after problem for NT users during 1996 and 1997, Microsoft announced that its Windows service packs would no longer introduce major new features; instead, service packs simply would consolidate bug fixes. The decision ushered in the release of the Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack in December 1997. The option pack included Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0, Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ) 1.0, Certificate Server 1.0, Index Server 2.0, Site Server Express, and Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0. Microsoft promised it would ship future OS add-ons in similar option packs.

Although Microsoft hasn't followed up with more option packs, the company did stop putting major new features in Windows service packs. For example, Microsoft added no major new features to its first two Windows 2000 service packs (a third is due next month). Incidentally, many people misunderstood Microsoft's promise and thought that the company meant that it would add no major features to any of its products' service packs, which is definitely not the case. In fact, most of Microsoft's non-Windows service packs include new features.

With Windows XP, Microsoft is returning to its former Windows service pack strategy and plans to include many new features in XP Service Pack 1 (SP1). The primary reason for this strategy turnabout is timing. Most people expected XP SP1 in the first half of 2002, but with the proposed antitrust settlement hanging over the company's head and the Trustworthy Computing code review taking most of February, the company delayed SP1 until fall 2002. In addition, Microsoft recently announced a series of new Windows-related technologies, scheduled to ship in late 2002. These technologies include the Mira remote-display technology, the Freestyle multimedia front-end, and new Tablet PC functionality. Now, Microsoft's scheduled XP SP1 will update XP and include all of these technologies, a set of changes that the proposed antitrust settlement requires, and the expected bug fix consolidation. SP1, arriving about a year after XP shipped, will give PC makers a fresh product with which to sell new systems.

If you're a systems administrator, many of those new technologies don't look particularly compelling for the workplace, but I have good news: You'll be able to install XP SP1 in a manner similar to the Win2K service packs, which means that it will intelligently download and install only those components you need. But with XP SP1, you should also be able to specify which components you want to install. Also, to comply with Microsoft's recent settlement with the US government, the company will likely make a wider range of components available through the Control Panel Add or Remove Programs applet, so we might finally be able to decide whether to install (or remove) applications such as Windows Messenger, Windows Media Player (WMP), Windows Movie Maker (WMM), and other components that are questionable in an enterprise environment. I haven't yet confirmed whether SP1 will include this functionality, but that's my current understanding. In the meantime, Microsoft will continue to post bug fixes and other updates to Windows Update and Corporate Update as usual, so even though SP1 won't ship for a few months, we can still automatically update XP.

Laptop of the Month: Dell Latitude C8x0
I carried an Apple iBook on a recent trip to New York, but because I needed to do some Windows-specific work, I had to borrow a Dell Latitude C810, the company's business-oriented desktop-replacement model. (The C810 likely will be phased out soon in favor of the C840, which doubles the amount of possible memory to 1GB and adds support for the new 1.6GHz mobile Pentium 4 chip.) The C810 I tested used a Pentium III-M processor running at 1.13GHz, which, until this week, was one of the fastest mobile chips available.

The C810 is a huge machine with three drive bays (one fixed and one that typically holds a battery), a 1600 x 1200 UXGA 15" display that uses a mobile version of NVIDIA's GeForce2 Go technology, a full-sized keyboard, and a dizzying array of ports. This model is one of the few non-Apple laptops that ships with a FireWire/IEEE-1394 port. The unit weighs 8 pounds in its lightest configuration, but my unit tipped the scale at 10 pounds.

Given its size, you'd think that the C810 could simultaneously support internal wireless, Ethernet, and modem, but you must choose an Ethernet/modem combination or a wireless device and add the other functionality through PC Card expansion. I suspect this limitation relates to the fact that the model was designed a few years ago because some of Dell's smaller machines support this capability (I can't determine whether the C840 has this limitation). Furthermore, the networking and modem ports are inconveniently located near the laptop's front-right corner rather than on the back of the unit where they would be out of the way.

The C810's performance was impressive—faster than my desktop for everything but 3-D games. I used the C810 to import digital video (DV), work with remote Web sites, and author a book chapter. I found the keyboard to be exceptional, and I loved the dual-pointing stick feature (I prefer a pointing stick, although they're less common than touchpads).

Dell's price/performance ratio for laptops is typically difficult to beat, and the C810 is a good example (the configuration I tested costs about $2300). And given the recent introduction of the C840, we might even see a price drop on the C810 in the coming weeks. If you're in the market for a desktop-replacement machine, the C810 is worth investigating—it could easily be your only PC.