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

BigFix aims high: It's a free, very comprehensive third-party patch-and-tune-and-update service for Windows machines. Unlike Microsoft's Update site, BigFix "knows" about some of your non-Microsoft application software and can assist in keeping those apps up to date, too. It also watches for common problems in system tuning and security, and can provide automatic, one-click fixes for these problems. It's a very promising concept.

The hard working BigFix examines many things: For example, I just stopped writing for a minute and ran BigFix. It said it evaluated 525 items pertaining to my setup; an impressive number. But it then reported it detected "no issues" that were relevant; that is, it found nothing wrong, nothing out of date, no security holes and and nothing untuned. This is fairly typical of what BigFix does -- or rather doesn't do -- for me. In the months I've been using it, it's never told me about any patch, update, or tweak that I didn't already know about from some other source. And sometimes, BigFix tells me, incorrectly, that I need a patch that I know I've already applied, usually via Windows Update or direct download from a Microsoft site.

Of course, I may not be a "typical" user (whatever that is) -- but are you?

Although you can run BigFix as a stand-alone app (exiting when you're done), it's designed and intended to be running all the time, like Microsoft's "Critical Update Notification." Thus, it has the same potential drawbacks: As a background app, it will consume resources and CPU cycles; it will "phone home" on its own from time to time; it may entice you to try an update on its own schedule, rather than when you've backed everything up and are ready to go; and so on.

I've kept BigFix on my system for some time in the hopes that something either really good or really bad would happen to tip the balance and let me clearly call the shot one way or the other -- but it never did. For me BigFix runs fine, but doesn't do much.

So my take on BigFix is conditional: If you already keep your machine in good shape by performing updates, housekeeping, and maintenance tasks such as those we regularly discuss here, you're probably not likely to get much out of BigFix. I sure haven't.

But if you prefer not to think about maintenance activities and would rather have an automatic reminder of when it's time to download a patch or perform routine maintenance, then BigFix might be useful to you.

To take it for a spin, check it out at

Dell File Watch
I really like this service from the top PC maker, and wish it were more generally available. As it is, if you have a Dell PC, you can sign up for File Watch on the Dell support site. It's a breeze: You enter your e-mail address and the "service tag" of your system which is written on the case and on the sales invoice.

Through the Service Tag, File Watch can look up the manufacturing records of your system, and so will know exactly what was in your system -- the type, version, and revision of motherboard, BIOS, drives, cards, OS, etc. -- when it was originally shipped from the factory. The service then watches for new drivers, BIOS updates and such that specifically pertain to your system. When a relevant file becomes available, it sends you an e-mail.

I just got the following for one of my systems here, for example. (Dell is only one of the brands I use, but is the only one that has this service.)

Dear Fred,

Greetings from Dell's File Watch service!

File Watch has located a newly published file in the Dell File Library that matches your current registration profile...

File Title: BIOS: Dell Dimension System BIOS, BIOS, English, Dimension XPS
Txxx, A11
File Date: 10/31/2000
Library: FlashBIOS Updates
File Size: 457576 bytes

You can view the details of this file from the Dell File Library at the following location

Remember, we've built a personal support site just for you with information for your specific systems and needs. Dell's industry-leading and award winning support site,, is available anytime for your technical support questions.

Thanks again for choosing Dell and have a great day.

Dell's File Watch Service

OK, it's terminally chipper and somewhat promotional in tone, but consider: That e-mail arrived, with no effort on my part, less than 24 hours after the new BIOS become available. The notification was totally automatic and totally noninvasive (File Watch runs on Dell's corporate computers, not on the user's system). I was told of the exact file that related to my specific model PC so I didn't have to wade through tables of downloads, or enter my motherboard serial number or BIOS revision number or any such thing. If I wanted the file, all I had to do was click the embedded link to go straight to the download page without having to wade through the rest of the support site.

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