Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) is a complex update with many ramifications for IT pros. TechRepublic’s Windows XP Service Pack 2 Quick Guide drills down on critical SP2 need-to-know areas, with sections on fundamentals, changes that occur after installation, deployment procedures, problem areas, and removal.
Now that Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Windows XP is finally out
there, users are trying to understand just what it does and how it affects the
everyday tasks they perform with their computers. Whether you follow the
philosophy of “install now, ask questions later” or you’re holding back to see
what happens to the early adopters before you load it on your machine, you’re
probably wondering just what functionality it will add, which applications it may
break, and what price you’ll pay for the improved security that it’s supposed
to provide. Last time, we examined the
changes that SP2 makes to Internet Explorer. In this article, we’ll look at
SP2’s effect on wireless networking in XP, as well as some of the problems that
have been reported with wireless connectivity following SP2 installation.
New wireless functionality added by SP2
SP2 adds several enhancements to Windows XP’s wireless
networking support, including:
support for WPA security
Network Setup Wizard
provisioning services support
Built-in WPA support
Windows XP, out of the box or with SP1, has built-in support
for Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption. However, WEP suffers from
several known weaknesses and is relatively easy to crack.
To use a stronger wireless encryption protocol, Wi-Fi
Protected Access (WPA), you have to download and install WPA client software
from Microsoft. The Windows WPA client is also part of the Wireless Update
Rollup Package (see Knowledge
Base article 826942). SP2 adds WPA client support to XP so that you don’t
have to install the client software separately. The addition of WPA support provides
greater security for wireless networks.
Using WPA requires more than the WPA client software. Your
network’s wireless access point (WAP) and your wireless network adapter must
also support WPA. You may be able to get a firmware update for your WAP and
driver updates for your NICs if they don’t already support WPA.
Wireless Network Setup Wizard
Setting up a wireless network with Windows XP is already
relatively easy—but setting it up securely is another matter. Without SP2, the
default is not to use any type of
encryption, so your wireless transmissions are wide open to anyone within range
who has the equipment and software to capture them.
SP2 adds a new Wireless Network Setup Wizard to walk you
through the process of creating an infrastructure wireless network. To access
the wizard, open My Network Places and select Set Up A Wireless Network For A
Home Or Small Office from the Network Tasks listed in the left pane, as shown
in Figure A.
|Access the Wireless Network Setup Wizard from My Network Places.|
To help bolster the security of your wireless network, the
default setting in the wizard enables WEP encryption, as shown in Figure B. You also have the option to
use stronger WPA encryption.
|The new Wireless Network Setup Wizard defaults to WEP encryption.|
With the wizard, you can have Windows automatically assign
an encryption key for WEP or WPA or you can manually create your own key. If
you want to manually assign a WEP key, you can choose either a five- or 13-character
key, or a 10- or 26-character hexadecimal key. If you manually assign a WPA
key, you can create a key with up to 63 characters (minimum of eight
characters) or a 64-character hexadecimal key.
By default, the characters are hidden as you type them,
although you can display them by deselecting the Hide Characters As I Type check
box, shown in Figure C.
|You can manually assign an encryption key for WEP or WPA.|
The Wireless Network Setup Wizard allows you to save your
network settings on a USB flash memory device, which makes it easy to configure
additional computers to use your wireless network. Once you’ve saved the
settings to the flash drive, you can just attach it to each computer and transfer
them instead of entering them manually. Figure
D shows this option.
|The wizard gives you the option of saving your wireless network settings to
a USB flash device.
If you decide to set up the network manually, you’ll be able
to print the network settings to use as a reference when you configure
Changes to the wireless networking configuration interface
The Connect To Wireless Network interface has been given a
makeover and a new name; it’s now the Wireless Network Connection dialog box. Figure E shows the new dialog box.
|SP2 changes the dialog box that’s used to configure wireless network
For each wireless network that is detected, the new dialog
box shows the network name (SSID), whether it has security (WEP or WPA)
enabled, and the connection status. An icon indicates the strength of the signal,
which is handy if you want to be sure to connect to the network with the
strongest signal. A star icon in the upper-right corner means the network is a
preferred network. The icon on the left side indicates whether the network is
infrastructure (WAP-based) or ad hoc (computer-to-computer).
You can invoke the Wireless Network Setup Wizard from the
left pane of this dialog box. You can also refresh the list of wireless
networks, change the order of preferred networks, change advanced settings, or
learn more about wireless networking.
Slight changes have been made to the Wireless Network
Properties dialog box, but these are minor.
Wireless provisioning services
Another change to wireless functionality added by SP2 is
support for wireless provisioning services (WPS). This automatically configures
the network settings for connecting to public wireless hotspots, such as those
available in hotels, coffee shops, and airports.
WPS makes it easier to use these services by automating not
only the configuration process but also the identification and payment process
when connecting to a hotspot that is run by a commercial wireless Internet
service provider (WISP).
Using WPS requires that the WAP support VLAN IDs or IP
filtering, and the WAP needs to be configured as a RADIUS client. This means
there must be an IAS server on the provider network. A provisioning server
maintains configuration information in an XML file and provides it to the
wireless clients. The provider network must also have a user accounts database.
This can be done with Active Directory or LDAP directories.
For more detailed information about how to set up and use
WPS, see the TechNet article ”Wireless Provisioning Services Overview.”
Wireless networking problems reported
Now that we’ve talked about how SP2 improves wireless
networking in Windows XP, the next question is inevitable: Does SP2 cause any
problems with wireless connectivity?
User reports during beta testing of SP2 contained complaints
of SP2 “breaking” the computer’s wireless networking capability. Inability to
obtain an IP address via DHCP for a wireless connection and driver issues with
wireless NICs were the most common problems. We’re hearing much less of this
with the final release version. We’ve also heard from users who found that the
range of their wireless networks was reduced after installing SP2. Most of
these problems could be worked around by configuring an IP address manually.
On the other hand, many users report better wireless
reliability with SP2. We’ve found that several past annoyances, such as
networks that are out of range remaining in the list, have disappeared.
Windows XP Service Pack 2 makes changes to many aspects of
the operating system. When it comes to wireless networking, SP2 has managed to
improve ease of use and enhance
security—no small feat. Setting up a wireless network is easier than ever with
the Wireless Network Setup Wizard, and WPA encryption is a welcome improvement
for security-minded wireless users. WPS support makes it easier to connect to
wireless hotspots, wherever you may find them.