All Microsoft wants for Christmas is your download limit. The long-awaited first service pack for Vista -- a whole freakin' gigabyte of it -- is due to arrive early next year, but patch junkies can give themselves an early injection of bug-fixing with a general pre-release of Service Pack 3 for Windows XP.
Microsoft has quietly made the release candidate for XP SP3 available on its web site. For the most part, the service pack rolls up previous patches, and only "includes a small number of new functionalities, which do not significantly change customers’ experience with the operating system", according to Microsoft's release notes. (The idea that you can "include functionalities" might change your experience of the English language, of course.)
The most significant of these additions include support for Network Access Protection, a much-touted feature of the forthcoming Windows Server 2008 which allows network access to include assessments of system health (in other words: if you're not patched and up to date, ain't no way you're connecting to this network, bud).
The size of this patch, while unquestionably smaller than the Vista equivalent, is a matter for some conjecture. The current download page lists it as 336MB. Microsoft's white paper on the subject suggests that the eventually released version on Windows Update will only be 70MB in size, but that the full download version for enterprise deployments will be 580MB. Whichever way you slice it, people stupid enough to sign up for plans with 200MB download limits will be found sobbing quietly in the corner.