Walt Mossberg

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Windows XP: Home v. Professional

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about Windows XP and security patches for the Apple operating system.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.


I am going to order a new computer using Windows XP. Would it improve the computer’s security if I chose XP Professional over the Home version?

Probably not. Windows XP Professional does add some features that the Home version lacks. But they are mainly related to configuring the computer for certain kinds of corporate networks and for enabling remote access. They don’t include any significant additional security measures that would protect a home user with a typical setup.

A home user might want to choose the Pro version if he or she regularly connects to a large corporate or college network from home. Some of these networks use a security system that works only with XP Pro, not XP Home.

You wrote that installing the Service Pack 2 on Windows XP has caused problems for some users, but that you still recommend installing it. Do you continue to recommend it?

It’s not a black-and-white issue. There’s no doubt that SP2 closes a multitude of security holes that digital criminals have used to attack or invade Windows computers. But, like any major update to an operating system, it can cause problems — sometimes serious problems — for some users.

Also, SP2 isn’t a security panacea. It hasn’t eliminated the virus or spyware problems on Windows PCs, and SP2 users still need a bunch of extra security software. However, the security mess on the Windows platform is so severe that, on balance, I do recommend SP2.

Just make sure to back up all of your important files, including e-mail, before installing SP2 — or any other major upgrade to an operating system, on any platform.

If the Macintosh is invulnerable to viruses, as you often say, why does Apple issue security patches for its operating system, just like Microsoft?

First of all, the Macintosh isn’t invulnerable to viruses, and I have never said so. In fact, I have written the opposite. What I have said repeatedly is that, so far, there haven’t been any reports of successful viruses for Apple’s current operating system, Mac OS X. By successful, I mean a virus that infects, and spreads among, the computers of real users — not just machines in a test lab.

Nevertheless, Apple does issue security patches for OS X, because the company, and outside experts, periodically discover theoretical vulnerabilities that might be exploited by virus writers and other digital criminals. Microsoft does the same thing, but it also has to act on occasion to patch Windows to stop actual successful viruses.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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