Windows XP SP3 release candidate is available to the public

Folks still hanging on to Windows XP—more than half of you according to the TR Hardware Survey—can now obtain the latest release candidate for the operating system's third service pack directly from Microsoft. The release candidate gives users a chance to sample the improvements and features of the upcoming service pack, although it's obviously still a pre-release version and Microsoft advises users to try it in a test environment and to back up their files first.

To install the service pack, folks need only to download the script available on this download page. The script will edit a key in the Windows registry in order to mark a system as a valid target for SP3 RC2, allowing its owner to install the software through Windows Update like any other patch.

The final version of SP3 is scheduled to come out some time before the middle of this year. It's expected to bring a few major changes, including higher performance, a new Windows Product Activation model that will let users install the OS without having to enter a product key, Network Access Protection functionality back-ported from Windows Vista, and a new Microsoft Kernel Mode Cryptographic Module. The service pack will also include over a thousand patches and fixes released since SP2 came out in August 2004. (Thanks to DailyTech for the tip.)

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