There was a time when we had to worry about manually updating desktop applications. Adobe Flash and Reader were full of security holes and didn’t update themselves, for example — but those days are largely behind us.

The Windows desktop is the only big software platform that doesn’t automatically update applications, forcing every developer to code their own updater. This isn’t ideal, but developers have now largely stepped up to the plate.

The Important Stuff is Updated Automatically

The most important updates you need to worry about are security updates for particularly vulnerable applications. These include your web browser and browser plug-ins — Flash, Adobe Reader, Java, and so on.

In the past, you had to worry about these. Flash didn’t update itself, nor did Adobe Reader. Browser updates weren’t as automatic, requiring manual intervention to install a new version of Firefox or Internet Explorer. It paid to keep an eye on updates and install them promptly — Flash and Reader weren’t going to update themselves, after all.

Updates are now more seamless. Chrome updates itself in the background, so you don’t have to worry about having the latest version. Firefox followed in Chrome’s lead and updates itself in the background, too. Even Internet Explorer updates itself separately from Windows Update, ensuring users have the latest version.

Adobe Flash checks for updates automatically and alerts you to them, allowing you to install them. If you use Chrome, Chrome handles Flash updates automatically. Adobe Reader also updates itself automatically.

Java is the worst — it only checks for updates once per month by default and has you download an updater that contains junk software like the Ask Toolbar. However, even Java can be set to check for updates more regularly — this is essential if you need to have Java installed. If you don’t need to have Java installed, you should uninstall it now.

Of course, Windows is also capable of automatically updating itself via Windows Update. This process is much more seamless than it was back in the days when users were forced to manually visit the Windows Update website in Internet Explorer to check for and download updates.

Most Applications Have Built-in Updaters

The majority of applications you use have built-in features that check for updates. Whether it’s a virtual machine program like VirtualBox or VMware, a chat program like Skype or Pidgin, or a frequently updated system utility like CCleaner, they’ll check for updates and let you know when there’s a new version. iTunes, Safari, and other Apple programs are updated through Apple Update on Windows.

Most games now automatically update themselves, too, especially if they’re purchased through an online storefront like Steam or Origin. You don’t need to hunt down patches on websites unless you’re installing an old game from a disc you have lying around.

Software Without Built-in Updaters

So where does that leave us — which applications don’t automatically update themselves?

  • Hardware Drivers: The hardware drivers your manufacturer provides don’t automatically check for new versions. This is good — you shouldn’t be updating your drivers regularly. The big exception is that gamers should update their graphics drivers — but NVIDIA and AMD include updaters that handle this.
  • Older Software: If you still depend on an application that you purchased on a disc a decade ago, it probably doesn’t have a built-in updater. You may have to manually hunt down patches for old games and other software that you install from a disc. However, such outdated applications won’t be getting regular updates, anyway.
  • Miscellaneous Utilities: There’s a good chance you have some utilities installed that don’t automatically check for updates. For example, the 7-Zip file archiver and WinDirStat disk usage statistics viewer don’t check for updates. But, let’s be honest — you don’t really need the latest version of 7-Zip or WinDirStat. They aren’t updated frequently, new versions won’t introduce exciting new features, and it’s doubtful there will be any security vulnerabilities you’ll need to worry about. The same goes for most other applications you have installed that don’t automatically update themselves.

App Update Checkers Aren’t That Great

Knowing that some applications don’t automatically update themselves and being aware that manual updates for everything from Flash and Adobe Reader to Windows itself were once necessary, you may be tempted to use an application that checks for updates for your installed applications and alerts you to them.

There are several software updater checkers you could use, such as Secunia PSI, which is focused on ensuring you have up-to-date applications with no security holes.

It would be great if there was one application that handled updates for all your installed applications on Windows. You wouldn’t have to worry about being out-of-date or using twenty different updaters. However, these third-party utilities will never be that one tool. They’ll never handle all of your installed applications. They aren’t necessary for your most important applications — your browser, plug-ins, and other software that’s updated on a frequent basis will update itself.

These tools could theoretically be useful for handing updates for lesser-known utilities and ancient games that need patches after you install them, but they generally don’t handle that sort of thing. Secunia PSI can be useful as a way of quickly seeing if a computer has up-to-date versions of its browser and plug-ins installed, but it’s not something you need to update your desktop programs.

We’d love a centralized updating solution for Windows, but no third-party can deliver it — Microsoft would have to deliver it themselves. There’s no practical reason to use such a tool or regularly check websites for updates. Just ensure your applications are set to automatically update themselves — they should be by default — and don’t worry about it.

Of course, everyone uses different software. It’s possible you use an application that does need regular, manual updates. You’re stuck updating it on your own in that case — it’s unlikely a third-party updating tool would help.

Image Credit: Docklandsboy on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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