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7/7/2004
06:01 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: The Promise--And Problems--Of The New Windows Update

XP and Windows 2000 users soon will get a new version of Windows Update. Here's the full story, and remember, this is beta software, so be careful, Fred Langa says.

The actual update process hasn't changed much from that of the classic Update, although the appearance of the dialog boxes has been freshened. (See Screen Six and Seven.)

As we mentioned previously, the new Update process is quite conservative: Its default settings assume that everyone will want all "High Priority" (aka "Critical") updates to be downloaded and installed as soon as they're available, with no user input, intervention, or vetting.

The new Update installation dialogs function much the same as those in the classic Update process...

(click image for larger view)



... but the dialogs have been visually updated to match the look of the new Update site.

(click image for larger view)

Screen Six

The new Update installation dialogs function much the same as those in the classic Update process...

Screen Seven

... but the dialogs have been visually updated to match the look of the new Update site.

This may indeed be a good default choice for "average" users, as many of them never download or install any updates at all! (Witness the many worms in the last year or so that exploited Windows security holes that had been detected and fully patched before the worms were released: The worms succeeded solely because tens of millions of PCs had not been updated, and thus remained vulnerable.)

But odds are, if you're reading this text, you're not exactly an average user, and the default settings may not be ideal for you. That's because, sometimes, security patches introduce new problems or create new instabilities and conflicts. It's been fairly common practice among more experienced users to delay installing security patches for at least several days, so that any unexpected problems with the patch could come to light. In other words, let other users be the guinea pigs for new updates and patches!

Although the new Update defaults to "install everything automatically as soon as it's available," you can fairly easily tame it and thus remain in control of when and how updates will be detected, downloaded, and installed, as Screen Eight shows.


The Automatic Update dialog shown here, plus the Settings and Administrator Options in the left-hand navigation bar of the main Update window, provide welcome flexibility in controlling what updates will be detected, downloaded, and installed on your PC.

(click image for larger view)

Screen Eight

The Automatic Update dialog shown here, plus the Settings and Administrator Options in the left-hand navigation bar of the main Update window, provide welcome flexibility in controlling what updates will be detected, downloaded, and installed on your PC.

The Automatic Update agent itself has four modes: It can operate in the default fully automated mode; it can detect and download new update items but not install them until you've given your explicit permission; it can merely inform you of new updates without actually downloading or installing anything; or it can be turned off completely.

Any of the options except the fully automatic one are fine for security-conscious users: These options put you in charge of what gets loaded onto your PC; you can postpone installation of new updates until you're reasonably sure the software is stable and worthwhile. But for casual users, the "set and forget" default mode is probably safer.

You can adjust the Automatic Update Agent settings at any time by clicking on "Pick a time to install updates" in the Automatic Update information panel that appears on the upper right portion of the main Update window. (See Screen Three.) Once the time-setting dialog opens, click on the "More Options" button and you'll then see the full, four-option Automatic Update dialog, as shown in Screen Eight. You also can reach the same dialog by clicking on the "Configure Automatic Updates" link that may appear at the end of an update, as shown in Screen Seven. As is usual with Windows, there are multiple ways to accomplish any given task, and the one that's "right" is whatever works for you.

The Update site itself also offers some additional customizations and controls: The "Settings" option lets you pick the language Update will use and also contains an "Advanced" option by which you can request that Update inform you of prerelease beta updates, as well as the normal, fully released ones. Most users don't need early notice of updates, but IT staff and other support personnel may find benefit in seeing new software ahead of the crowd.

"Administrator options" gives you access to the full Update Catalog. It's useful for downloading local copies of any available updates or for updating multiple systems or for updating PCs using different versions of Windows. It also offers one-click access to the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer, to various Update FAQs, to the Microsoft Download Center, and more.

Now or later, whenever you end up with the new Update on your PC, it'll be worthwhile for you to explore all the options contained in the new site and software.

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