Microsoft has made the Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) build it released to testers two weeks ago available to the public.

"We're broadening the availability of the release candidate in order to receive further user feedback prior to the release of Windows XP SP3," a company spokeswoman said.

On February 7, Microsoft seeded Release Candidate 2 (RC2) with the 15,000 or so testers who had been working with SP3 for several months. At that time, the company said nothing about taking the version public.

This is just the second time that all Windows XP users have had the chance to try out SP3, the last scheduled major update to the six-year-old operating system. The only other public posting was of SP3 RC in December.

Microsoft, however, followed precedence on Tuesday. Earlier this year, it did the same thing - sent code to its beta testers, then released it to all comers - during the run-up to finalising Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1).

Windows Vista's service pack pattern may also signal that the XP service pack release is imminent. Microsoft seeded the RC Refresh build of Vista SP1 on January 11, then two days later posted it for public download. Twenty-two days later, it called a wrap on SP1, saying the code had met its RTM (release to manufacturing) criteria.

Another Vista indictor - the posting of revised release notes just days before SP1 went RTM - may also hint at XP SP3 be finished sooner rather than later.

Microsoft said on Tuesday that the SP3 RC2 download would be posted on the Microsoft Download Center. The company has also published the first version of the XP SP3 release notes to its website.

Once SP3 ships, the next major milestone for Windows XP is June 30, when the popular operating system is slated to fall off the reseller and retail availability list.

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