It’s traditional at the turn of the year for those interested in technology to predict which new products will have the biggest influence on our lives over the next 12 months. But very often, we get sidetracked by the headline-grabbing gadgets and forget the bread-and-butter technologies that will have a meaningful impact on the way we use our PCs.

This time last year, for instance, we singled out the iPhone as the killer product of 2007. As it turned out, despite being arguably the gadget of the year, it didn’t change the world. Now, Google's Android mobile-phone platform and Amazon's Kindle e-book reader are the technologies many techies want to read about. But while we've got these two covered this month two far less ambitious ‘products’ are likely to be of most interest to PC users in 2008. And both of them are completely free.

The words ‘Windows Service Pack’ are hardly likely to set pulses racing, but everyone who installed Windows XP SP2, Microsoft’s last major update for a desktop operating system (OS), will know that, in practice, these releases can have a major impact. Among other significant improvements, XP SP2 boosted PC security with the Windows Security Center. So you might be wondering whether it’s worth getting excited about the next Windows updates. Both XP and Vista are in line for service packs over the coming months; Vista SP1 could be with us as early as January 2008, while Microsoft expects to deliver XP SP3 in the first half of next year.

Vista’s update, as you might expect, is getting more attention. More conservative PC users have traditionally waited until a Windows OS’s first service pack before upgrading to a new version, believing the label ‘SP1’ signals that all early bugs have been ironed out. They also hope the update will have a positive impact on performance.

However, as we report this month, initial reviews suggest this may not be the case with Vista SP1. One testing firm has reported that the updated version of Vista is no more than 1 or 2 percent faster than the original OS Microsoft released a year ago – an OS, remember, that has been criticised for being slower than its predecessor. XP SP3 is a different story, however.

The same testing company discovered a 10 percent speed increase using XP SP3 compared with SP2 and described 2008’s XP service pack as a ‘must-have’ update for the majority of users.

Either way, the two Windows Service packs launching in 2008 are likely to have a bigger impact on our computing lives than anything offered by the likes of Google, Amazon or even Apple, with the rumoured iPhone 2. So keep your eye out for the full reviews on our website and in future issues of PC Advisor.

Customise your PC

While Vista SP1 and XP SP3 aren’t likely to introduce any new Windows components or interface tweaks, you needn’t wait for a service pack if you fancy giving your system a boost. This month's cover feature shows you how to customise your OS – anything from replacing your boot screen to speeding up troublesome Windows components is possible by following our guide. Follow our tips and you won’t need to buy any new technology to give your computer a lift.