Microsoft today made a near-final version of the final Windows XP service pack, XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), available for download to the public. The XP SP3 Release Candidate (RC), first shipped earlier this month to MSDN and TechNet subscribers as well as beta testers.

The XP SP3 RC code isn't intended for typical users, but is rather aimed at IT professionals interested in testing the final XP service pack. "As this is a release candidate, we strongly encourage only those who are comfortable installing prerelease code to download Windows XP SP3," a Microsoft spokesperson said.

Those that do install XP SP3 RC will find that not much has changed. Microsoft does not include any major new features in the release, which is intended mostly as a rollup of all previously-released hot-fixes. For example, Internet Explorer 7 is not included in XP SP3, though the release does include all updates for both IE 6 and 7. "This update includes a small number of new functionalities, which do not significantly change customers' experience with the operating system," according to Microsoft documentation for the RC.

XP SP3 will ship in final form in the first half of 2008, Microsoft says. It follows XP S2, which shipped way back in late 2004. Microsoft was sidetracked from completing SP3 earlier because of delays with Windows Vista.

Those interested in the RC can download it now from the Microsoft Web site. Note that this update applies to all 32-bit versions of XP. (64-bit versions of XP are updated by Windows 2003 service packs.)