Software // Enterprise Applications
04:11 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

The Explorer: Automatic Update Services -- Yea or Nay?

Taking a long, hard look at BigFix, Dell File Watch, and others.

There is a variety of sites and services -- some free, some not -- that purport to keep your PC's hardware and software completely up to date with all necessary new updates, patches, drivers, and bug-fixes.

Most of these services are conceptually similar to Microsoft's free "Windows Update" service for Windows 95/98/Me and Windows 2000. As you probably know, Windows Update combines a special Microsoft Web site and a downloadable applet that, together, sniff your OS and browser components to see what versions you're running. If a newer/better/bug-fixed version is available, the Update site offers you the download, along with other miscellaneous downloads you may optionally select. (You can run Windows Update manually by selecting "Windows Update" from the Start menu, or by running Wupdmgr.exe (usually found in the \Windows directory), or by clicking here.)

Windows Update also offers a separate but related "Critical Update Notification" service that can automate the process. If you choose to download and install this applet, it runs as a background task, and will automatically "phones home" periodically to see if there are new updates you need.

Windows Me is a little different in that it bundles a self-update capability right into the OS as a Control Panel item called "Automatic Updates." (But under the covers, it's essentially a repackaged version of the Critical Update Notification applet mentioned above.) Although it's installed as part of the OS, it is controllable: You can configure it to download and install updates automatically; to let you know when new updates are available but not to install them without your approval; or to do nothing at all.

Is Automatic Better?
Your mileage may vary, but I tend to dislike fully automated update services. Here's why:

  1. I don't want extra tasks bubbling in the background, sucking up resources and CPU cycles
  2. I dislike apps that "phone home" unattended because I prefer to control when, how, and about what my PC communicates with the outside world. (I don't believe Microsoft Update actively snoops on things it shouldn't; but why take a chance with any phone-home app, if you don't have to?)
  3. I want to ensure I've made a secure, fresh backup before any system files are changed or updated
  4. I like to know what's going on with my PC. If an automated update happens without your knowing it, and it fails for some reason, your system may become flaky and you'll have no idea why.

So, I usually trigger my updates manually. I'll visit the Windows Update site once a week or so, for example, and see what, if anything, it thinks I need to download. If I agree with the "Update Wizard's" assessment, I'll allow the download, and go from there. While I'm at the Microsoft site, I'll also visit the similar (semi-manual) update site for MS Office applications.

I also periodically visit the much more-comprehensive and newly-revised "Corporate Update Site." In the past, the Corporate site was just a static collection of Update files you could download and store locally on your hard disk so you wouldn't have to re-download again if you reinstalled your OS. (The site actually is aimed at corporate IT department staffs that prefer to download a patch once and then distribute it over a LAN to a large number of PCs. But the site also is a gold mine for advanced users, although very few know about it. Now, you do!) Microsoft recently has upgraded the site and it now includes not only all the Windows Update content, but also is a good selection of driver updates approved by the Windows Hardware Quality Lab.

With these resources, I can keep my OS and Office components, and some of my hardware drivers, fully up to date with minimal effort. But what about the rest of the hardware and software? The Microsoft site doesn't help much there.

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