Six strategies for removing Windows XP Service Pack 2 from your workstation

Windows XP Service Pack 2 is supposed to fix problems, but it can often break things as well. Here are six strategies you can use to remove Service Pack 2 from Windows XP workstations that encounter post-SP2 problems.

Service Pack 2 is supposed to make your Windows XP workstation more stable and secure, but as we've learned by now, it can also break things. If and when SP2 causes problems on one of your XP workstations, beyond cursing Microsoft, you need a strategy to remove it. Here are six strategies you can use to remove SP2 from your Windows XP workstations.

Getting ahead of the game

Because SP2 replaces just about every component of Windows XP, removing it is almost as big of a deal as installing it. You can save yourself a lot of headaches during the removal process by installing the service pack properly to begin with.

Microsoft has helped the recovery process by forcing the SP2 Setup program to back up your system files before applying the service pack. Of course, this is going to be difficult on a system that's already low on disk space. Storing the system backups requires almost 1 GB of free space on your workstation before applying the service pack. Many older workstations may not have this much free space, and you may be tempted to do the installation without those backups. You can do so by manually running the Update utility with the /n switch. However, this will complicate recovery.

Likewise, to be able to properly recover from a failed SP2 installation, you may want to ensure that you've enabled System Restore. System Restore is a Windows XP feature that allows you to quickly restore system settings to a predetermined point in the past. Although not a replacement for a full backup, System Restore can help you dig yourself out of problems. The main drawback is that it too can consume quite a bit of hard drive space on a workstation and can enact a performance hit on workstations that are close to Windows XP's minimum requirement. Therefore, you may have been tempted to disable it. You should restore System Restore if possible, and set a restore point before applying the service pack.

Although it's not common on workstations, you may want to make sure you have a full system backup before applying SP2. This is especially important on workstations that contain critical data for your business. To be 100-percent sure you can recover from a failed SP2 installation, back up the workstation first or create an image using Ghost or a similar program. This latter choice may be your only hope of reversing SP2 if you didn't allow Setup to automatically create a backup before applying the service pack.

Option 1: Add/remove programs

Just like most other Windows applications and Microsoft hot fixes, Windows XP Service Pack 2 appears in the Add Or Remove Programs Control Panel Applet. Click Start | Control Panel to launch Control Panel. When the Control Panel window appears, double-click Add Or Remove Programs.

Scroll down the list of programs in the Currently Installed Programs list box until you see Windows XP Service Pack 2. Select it. If the SP2 Setup program backed up files on your workstation, you'll see the Remove button. If the Remove button doesn't appear or Windows XP Service Pack 2 isn't in the list of Currently Installed Programs, this tip won't work.

Click Remove. This will launch the Windows XP Service Pack 2 Removal Wizard. After the first splash screen appears and you click Next, there's nothing left to do but wait. The wizard will remove all of the components for Service Pack 2. When the wizard is finished, it will prompt you to reboot your workstation.

Option 2: Uninstall the service pack

The second way you can uninstall SP2 is by using SP2's built-in removal utility. You can start the utility either from a command line or from Explorer. You can also execute the program remotely via logon script or group policy if you know the precise location of the backup files.

By default, a Service Pack Setup utility will copy backup files to the $NtServicePackUninstall$ folder on in the Windows directory of your workstation's boot disk. However, as with most Microsoft things, it's not always that simple. If you've already installed Service Pack 1 or 1a on your workstation, you may unknowingly already have at least one of these folders on your workstations.

Start Windows Explorer and configure it to View Hidden Files. Then, navigate through your boot partition until you get to the $NtServicePackUninstall$ folder, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Find the $NtServicePackUninstall$ folder.

Go into the folder and then into the SPUNINST folder beneath that. Execute the SPUNINST program to start the Windows XP Service Pack 2 Removal Wizard. From there, just let the wizard remove the service pack, and you're done.

Option 3: Use System Restore

Another option for removing SP2 is to use Windows XP's System Restore feature. System Restore preserves file and registry settings for Windows XP in an area that's quarantined from access by most other programs. During the service pack installation, Setup will set a restore point in System Restore from which you can recover in case SP2 doesn't work.

To restore settings using System Restore, click All Programs | Accessories | System Tools | System Restore. When the System Restore window appears, make sure that Restore My Computer is selected and click Next. On the following screen, select a restore point from any date, preferably the most recent prior to the installation of the service pack, and click Next. System Restore will then remove SP2 from your system.

Option 4: Use the Recovery console

You can also remove SP2 by using XP's Recovery console. Doing so will require you to have your Windows XP CD-ROM handy. Restart the workstation with the CD in the drive, and boot the CD as if you were going to reinstall Windows XP.

Pay attention, however, and don't start the reinstallation process. When the Welcome To Setup screen appears, press R to start the Recovery console. You'll then see what appears to be an old-fashioned DOS menu screen.

Here you select the operating system you want to boot. There may be several options on this menu depending on how many operating systems you want. Enter your Windows XP boot path, which is normally C:\Windows. Then enter the Administrator password for your workstation. If you don't have this password, you're stuck.

When the C:\WINDOWS> prompt appears, type cd $ntservicepackuninstall$ and then press [Enter]. Next, type cd spuninst and press [Enter]. When you see the prompt C:\WINDOWS\$ntservicepackuninstall$\spuninst>, type batch spuninst.txt and press [Enter]. You'll see a string of errors and file copy confirmation messages appear on the screen.

Don't worry about the errors that appear on-screen unless they all come up as "Access Denied." If you see nothing but "Access Denied," chances are there's a problem in the spuninst.txt file. This can occur if the boot drive letter for Windows XP is different from the boot drive letter for the Recovery console. All you have to do is boot Windows XP as normal and then do a Search And Replace in the spuninst.txt file to substitute the Windows XP boot drive letter with the boot drive letter used by the Recovery console. After the batch process completes, type exit and press [Enter] to restart your workstation.

As a last resort

Out of all the options listed in this article, options 5 and 6 are the least desirable. That's because these options will cause you to lose data or at the very least have to do some reconfiguration of your XP workstations. You should use these options only as a last resort.

Option 5: Reinstall Windows XP

This option is exactly what it says. Use your original Windows XP CD-ROM to reinstall Windows on the workstation. You can use either the Repair or Install option when the workstation boots from the CD. Be very careful not to delete the Windows XP partition or format the partition. Doing so will cause you to lose data on the drive.

If you merely reinstall Windows XP, application data should be preserved on the workstation. You'll probably have to reinstall applications, but at least valuable user data will still be intact and accessible once you've reconfigured XP.

Option 6: Restore from a backup or image

You may not actually go to the trouble of backing up workstations on a regular basis, but if you do, this option will help you back out Windows XP. Even if you only keep disk images by using a program such as Symantec Ghost, you can quickly reverse the effects of the service pack by restoring from your backup or image.

Naturally, restoring from some traditional backup program is the best option. This will at least keep user data intact. The restore program will merely overwrite information you've backed up. Depending on when the backup was done, you may need to reinstall applications or reconfigure Windows XP in case registry settings in the backup don't reflect current workstation settings.

Your extreme last resort should be restoring from an original disk image. This option will completely overwrite the workstation's hard drive, removing Windows XP Service Pack 2 but obliterating any user data on the drive as well.

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