According to Microsoft, Windows 10 has “B,” “C,” and “D” updates—but never “A” updates! These updates are released at different times, contain different things, and are offered to different people. Let’s break all this down.

What Is a Cumulative Quality Update?

Microsoft calls these “quality updates,” and each is released once per month. This distinguishes them from the big “feature updates” like the October 2018 Update and 19H1 that are released once every six months, usually in the Spring and Fall.

Quality updates are cumulative, which means they contain all the fixes from previous updates. So, when you install the December cumulative update, you get the new security fixes from December as well as everything that was in the November and October updates, even if you haven’t installed those previous updates.

And, if you’re updating a new PC, you only have one big cumulative update package to install. You don’t have to install updates one by one and reboot in between each.

That’s all great, but the way Microsoft handles C and D updates is just bizarre. Microsoft tricks people it calls “seekers” into installing updates before they’re fully tested. But almost none of these people even realize they’re signing up to be “seekers.”

“B” Updates: Patch Tuesday

The big updates most people are familiar with come out on “Patch Tuesday,” the second Tuesday of the month. These are called “B” updates because they’re released in the second week of the month. That explains why there are no “A” updates, as Microsoft doesn’t generally release updates in the first week of the month.

B updates are the most important updates, featuring new security fixes. They also contain previously released security fixes from prior B updates and previously released bug fixes from prior C and D updates.

They’re the main, most important type of Windows Update. They’re also predictable for system administrators, who know when to expect them.

“C” and “D” Updates: “Optional” Preview Updates

“C” and “D” updates are released in the third and fourth weeks of the month, respectively. These do not include any new security updates.

These updates just include new bug fixes and improvements for other non-security issues. Microsoft says C and D updates are “optional,” and Windows Update won’t automatically install them on your PC.

According to Microsoft, “D” updates typically include the majority of non-security updates. This gives people a few weeks to test them before those non-security fixes are released to everyone in the next B update. Microsoft sometimes releases “C” updates in the third week of the month for Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and older versions of Windows 10, which gives people more time to test them.

“C” and “D” Updates Are For Unwitting Seekers

Here’s where it gets ugly: Windows Update doesn’t automatically install C and D updates on most PCs. However, it does install C and D updates when you head to Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update and click “Check for Updates.” In Microsoft’s world, this makes you a “seeker” who wants to test these updates before most Windows users get them. Microsoft disclosed this in a recent blog post.

So, if you click “Check for Updates” in the third, fourth, or first week of a month before the next B update has been released, you’ll probably get a C or D update installed on your system. If you never click “Check for Updates,” you’ll stick with the better-tested B updates.

After these updates have been “tested” by being unwittingly installed on Windows 10 PCs and Microsoft has confirmed they’re stable with Windows 10’s telemetry, the bug fixes in these updates appear in the next B update. The C and D updates are basically a beta testing program for B updates taking place on stable PCs.

In other words, Microsoft is using people who click the “Check for Updates” button as beta testers for quality fixes rather than relying on the Windows Insider program and its Release Preview ring. It’s bizarre, and it’s the same bad decision that made Microsoft roll out the unstable October 2018 Update to many Windows 10 users who didn’t want it.

It’s not just a theoretical concern. Microsoft recently had to put a block on KB4467682, a “D” update that was causing blue screen crashes on its Surface Book 2 devices. People who never clicked “Check for Updates” and stuck with the B updates wouldn’t have encountered this problem.

Microsoft has repeatedly said only “advanced users” should click the “Check for Updates” button, but that warning only appears in blog posts that only advanced users will read. The standard Windows Update screen in Windows 10 provides no such warnings. It’s ridiculous, but that’s the way Windows 10 works right now.

RELATED: Watch Out: Clicking "Check for Updates" Still Installs Unstable Updates on Windows 10

Out-of-Band Updates: Urgent Patches Only

Microsoft also occasionally releases “out-of-band” updates. These are urgent patches that don’t follow the normal release schedule.

For example, if there’s a big new security bug that has to be fixed immediately or a problem that’s causing some Windows 10 PCs to blue screen, Microsoft may fix it with an immediate patch. That means everyone gets the fix as soon as possible.

Fixes in out-of-band updates will also appear in the next cumulative update. So, if there’s an out-of-band update released in late December, it will also appear in January’s B update on Patch Tuesday.

Feature Updates: Big Updates Every Six Months

There are also “feature updates,” which are big upgrades to Windows 10 and are released every six months. These are separate from the monthly “quality updates.” They’re basically entire new versions of Windows 10, and Microsoft gradually rolls them out to PCs.

The most recent big update was Windows 10’s October 2018 Update, which skipped the Release Preview ring and wasn’t properly tested by Windows Insiders before Microsoft released it to people who clicked “Check for Updates.” Microsoft loves abusing that “Check for Updates” button.

Microsoft had to pull the update for deleting some people’s files and is still fixing bugs in it over two months later, although it’s technically considered stable and is slowly rolling out to a small number of Windows 10 users.

RELATED: Don't Click "Check for Updates" Unless You Want Unstable Windows 10 Updates

This would all make a lot more sense if Windows Update provided a better interface that told people exactly what they were getting into. Users shouldn’t accidentally become testers just because they habitually click the “Check for Updates” button. And, if that’s how the Check for Updates button is going to work, Microsoft needs to put a big warning about it in the Settings app—not just in blog posts.

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.
Read Full Bio »