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Why Are AMD Systems Prone to SP3 Problems?

As with any patch/service pack, Service Pack 3 for Windows XP has not been without its hiccups. This is more or less standard, as Microsoft can't test every possible configuration out there.

However, one issue has come up that's causing some finger pointing and claims of an OEM taking a shortcut, a shortcut Microsoft warned them not to take.

A number of HP computers with AMD (NYSE: AMD) processors have gotten stuck in an endless loop of reboots when trying to install SP3. This problem first cropped up when SP3 was initially released, causing Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) to pull the service pack temporarily.

Machines from other PC makers have suffered a similar problem, and it has struck Intel-based systems as well. What's different here is there seems to be a regular occurrence with AMD-based HP machines, and the fingers are pointing in HP's direction.

Both AMD and a Microsoft expert and former employee who writes a blog on Microsoft topics, are saying HP used the same Windows XP system image for Intel chipsets on AMD machines. While AMD's and Intel's processors are compatible, their supporting chipsets most definitely are not.

PC OEMs use a tool called Sysprep to quickly install Windows on a computer as it's being built. This process is much faster than the usual installation process, which can take a half hour or more. The system image is dependent on knowing what hardware is on the system, however.

When Windows XP goes through the install process, it probes the system to determine what hardware is in use and tries to install the appropriate drivers. When using a system image, there is no check. The driver and hardware have to match. This is usually a safe assumption for an OEM to make, since they know what hardware they are using.

Microsoft does not support nor encourage this shortcut and warned OEMs not to do it in 2004. In a Support Bulletin on the subject, it attributed the error to "if the original Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) Sysprep image is created on an Intel-processor-based computer and if the Sysprep image is then deployed on a non-Intel-processor-based computer."

AMD had pretty much the same accusation. "The problem is the result of applying a non-AMD processor Windows operating system image to AMD processor-based PCs; this is a configuration issue only and not an HP platform, AMD processor, or operating system issue," said the company in a statement.

Jesper Johansson, a 20-year veteran of Microsoft and now a Microsoft MVP, also said it's HP's fault for using an Intel image in his own lengthy blog post, along with fixes and workarounds to the problem.

HP's response

HP (NYSE: HPQ) for its part denied using an Intel image. "The affected HP systems do not have an Intel driver loaded onto them, but there is a services registry entry that SP3 appears to be recognizing as an instruction to load the Intel driver, and when it can't find it, it causes the failure," said the company in a statement to InternetNews.com.

The company said it is working with Microsoft to correct the problem and plans to issue a patch through its own patch network, HP Update. HP has also posted a help page on the matter.

IDC analyst Ricahrd Shim admits to being a little surprised at this shortcut. "It kind of points to AMD being a bigger factor in the market, now that there are more AMD systems out there that this is happening. I guess I'm surprised it wasn't called to light prior to this and OEMs were able to get away with this for as long as they have," he said.

"I'm sure this will be a wake up call to other vendors because they aren't going to want this to happen to their systems," he added.