Commentary
2/11/2004
03:43 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary

Langa Letter: Successful Updates Despite Very Slow Connections

Fred Langa shows how some simple workarounds let you bypass bottlenecks when keeping your PCs up to date.



Reader Randy Brooks has a problem. One of his PCs has a fast connection; it's easy and quick to keep that system up to date with all the necessary patches and downloads from Windows Update. But the other system is on an old, slow, unreliable phone line. It's almost impossible to keep it current:

I spend a lot of time [where] the old, single phone line gets me 24 Kbps at best. Do you have any suggestions for keeping WinXP Home (which is running there) up to date, other than leaving the modem running for hours every time MS puts out a patch? When I update my XP Pro network in the city, it's all via cable and Auto update, so I don't have any files to copy to a cdrom.
-- Randy Brooks

Randy's case actually isn't that unusual: Many of us have one or more PCs to support that are hindered by low-speed connectivity. Because some Windows Update items are huge, trying to install them via a slow connection can strain anyone's patience.

But if you have access to at least one machine with a fast connection--your own system at home or at work, at a hotel or airport business center, at a user group, at a friend's, etc.--there's an easy answer. Even if the PCs use different versions of Windows, you can use the fast PC to download any needed patches for the slow one. You then can copy the patches to CD, floppy, or any other media you wish, and bring them to the slower PC for easy installation.

In this way, you can keep a slower PC up to date without needing to perform any long downloads. Here's how:

Find What Patches And Updates You Need
On the slow PC, use Windows Update only far enough to see what updates and patches that PC needs; but don't download or install any patches yet. You can launch Windows Update via the Start/All Programs menu, or by running WUPDMGR.EXE from the Start/Run line. Once on the Windows Update site, click "scan for updates," and let the Update site show you what the slow PC needs. Again, don't actually install or download any of the indicated updates; for now, just make notes of the names and numbers of any items the Update site says that PC needs.

For example, if the Update site shows you need "Recommended Update for Windows XP SP1 (817778)," that's what you'd write down.

In general, it's usually a good idea to plan to install every Critical Update, but you can be more selective about "Recommended" updates and "Driver" updates. Each Update item carries a "Read more..." link to help you decide which items are important enough to warrant making note of.

When you're done--it'll only take a couple minutes--you'll have a list of all Critical Updates that the site suggested; plus whichever Recommended and Driver updates you've decided are worthwhile. You can then exit Windows Update without downloading or installing anything.

Grabbing The Patches At High Speed
Bring your list of patches to a PC with a fast connection, and run Windows Update on that PC. But instead of clicking "scan for updates," select "Catalog" from the left navigation pane. The Update Catalog gives you access to almost every Update item for all versions of Windows, not just the version on the PC you're currently using.

If the "Catalog" option doesn't appear, don't worry: It's easy to turn on. Select "Personalize" from "Other Options" in the left menu, and select the "Display the link to the Windows Catalog" option. The Catalog will then appear in the "See Also" menu on the left.

You can then use the Catalog to select whatever Updates and Drivers you want for the slow PC: Select the slow PC's version of Windows, and then select the specific patches and updates you made note of earlier. Items you select go into a "download basket" from which you can later retrieve them and place them wherever you want--on your hard drive, on a CD or whatever--for safekeeping and later use. (Note: The downloaded files will be executables--little setup programs--but don't run them yet. Just save them in a known location on the fast PC.)

For reasons known only to Microsoft, the Update Catalog doesn't list all available patches. But if you can't find a patch you need in the Catalog proper, you usually can find it via the "Search" link at the top of the Update Window: Enter the name or number of the patch you're seeking, and the search tool will usually bring you to a Knowledgebase discussion of that patch, which will contain a link to the actual download. As with the Update Catalog items themselves, don't run the files you download this way; just save them in a known location on the fast PC's hard drive.

And even if that search fails, there still are ways to find the downloads you need. For example, many Update items are listed with a six-digit number; you can use that number to search the Microsoft Knowledgebase for the patch. To do so, you use a URL in this format, substituting the number where you see the X's at the end of the line:

http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;XXXXXX

Thus, to search for "Recommended Update for Windows XP SP1 (817778)," you'd use http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;817778

Or, you can use the more general search tools here.

Once you've located and downloaded all the patches the slow PC needs, burn the downloaded files to a CD, or copy then to floppies, a Zip-disk, tape, or other media that the slow PC will be able to read.

Installing On The Slow PC, And Other Patch Uses
Bring the saved files to the slow PC, and run each of the setup files, one by one, by double-clicking on them (they're usually EXE or MSI files). Install the Critical Updates first, then the Recommended and Driver updates.

When you're done, rerun Windows Update on the slow PC, just as you did in the first step. Sometimes, patches must be installed incrementally, and installing one patch or update will then require a subsequent patch or update. (This is more likely to happen if you haven't patched the slow PC in a long time; several iterations may be needed to get the system fully current.)

Don't throw out the saved updates; they can be reused in the future, should you need to reinstall the operating system or its patches again.

In fact, you can use this method of saving patches on any PC, even if you're not moving files to a second machine. You can use Windows Update's "History" option to see what's been installed on any given PC, and then use the Catalog to re-download and save copies of those patches. If you ever need to reinstall the operating system, you'll then have the patches for that PC right at hand, and can run them from your hard drive without re-identifying and re-downloading everything afresh.

Exceptions To The Rule
There's a "gotcha" lurking in some downloads: What appears to be an Update file may in fact be only a small loader file or the front end of a much larger download. If you run into these, note that many of these larger downloads--such as Internet Explorer 6--offer a "custom" install which includes a "save to disk" option. This lets you download and save the update files without actually installing them. Once the files are saved, you can then move them to a different PC for installation there, exactly as described earlier.

Microsoft also offers some large updates by CD for just a few dollars. For example, you can order Internet Explorer and its Service Pack 1 patch on CD for $5. Poke around the Microsoft site to see what else is available.

Some third-party sites also sell or distribute aggregated patches that can be downloaded on one PC, burned to CD, and carried to other locations. Although these are unofficial services not sanctioned by Microsoft--and which may carry their own security risks--they may be worth looking at, especially in extreme cases where huge numbers of files are needed. See, for example, the AutoPatcher service.

Don't let a slow connection tempt you into running an unpatched or unprotected PC: With just a little effort and ingenuity, you can work around even the worst bottlenecks and still keep your PC fully up to date!

What do you do to keep your PC up to date? How do you work around problems with slow connections at remote locations, on the road, or in other places where high-speed links simply aren't available? Join in the discussion!


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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