We know, updating your PC is a hassle–but it’s important. New security flaws are discovered on a regular basis, and most companies are pretty good about about issuing fixes for those flaws as they crop up. Plugging those holes, however, depends largely upon you making sure things are properly updated.
If you’re using Windows 8 or 10, Windows Update is a little more aggressive than it used to be. You no longer have the easy option of selecting which updates to download and install like you did in Windows 7. Though you can take some measures to prevent updates, Windows pretty much just does it automatically. Still, it’s important to be aware of what’s getting updated and also how to update things that fall outside the Windows Update purview, like third-party apps and some hardware drivers. And if you’re still using Windows 7, you need to make sure you’re taking the right steps to keep things up to date.
In addition to fixing security flaws, updates also come in the form of bug fixes and new features, both of which are also nice to have. We’re going to be talking about how to keep three major aspects of your PC up to date:
- Windows. Windows Update has grown more insistent over the years in keeping itself up to date. In Windows 10, security updates are downloaded and installed automatically. You don’t really get a choice in the matter. And that’s largely a good thing. Too many people just never bothered to keep up to date with security updates, and insecure PCs don’t just create a problem for the person who owns them. An unsecure PC connected to the Internet can become a problem for everyone. You do still have a little control over when other, non-security updates are installed, though.
- Third-Party Apps. Keeping third-party apps up to date is nearly as important as keeping Windows itself updated. Unfortunately, how updates get installed is up to the people making those apps. Fortunately, there are some tools out there that can help you make the process a bit easier.
- Hardware Drivers. By and large, keeping hardware drivers up to date is less a security issue than one of functionality. New driver updates tend to add bug and stability fixes or, in the case of things like video card drivers, better performance and functionality with newer games and apps.
Keeping Windows and your third-party apps up to date is arguably the most important action you can take to help keep your PC, and by extension you, safe. So let’s get to it.
Keep Windows Up to Date
First and foremost, you should ensure Windows is always kept up to date with the latest bug fixes and security patches. This is a bit different in Windows 7 than in later versions, so we’ll cover both here.
In Windows 8 and 10
Windows Update is now a lot more streamlined than it was in Windows 7. To access it, just hit Start, type “windows update” and then click the result.
The Windows Update window is pretty sparse compared to what it used to be, but is still useful for finding out the status of updates and configuring a few options. Since Windows downloads and installs updates automatically, you’re most likely to see a basic screen letting you know that your device is up to date and the last time updates were checked. If you want to check for updates immediately, you can click the “Check for updates” button and Windows will let you know if it finds anything. Even if you don’t bother checking updates manually, any updates that are available will be downloaded and installed sooner rather than later.
If there are available updates that have not yet been downloaded or installed, they’ll show up on the Windows Update screen. If you’d like to see more information about the available updates, just click the “Details” link. The details page shows you pretty much the same information about each update that the main screen shows, but does add the status of each update so you can see whether it’s waiting to be downloaded or has been downloaded but is waiting for installation.
Back on the main page, you can also select the “Update history” link to see details about your recent history of updates.
The history shows each update, whether it was installed successfully or not, and when it happened. The history screen has two options for helping you recover from a bad update. The “Recovery options” link takes you to the standard Windows recovery options screen, where you can reset the PC or boot in recovery mode. If you want to uninstall one or more particular updates, hit the “Uninstall updates” link instead.
In the Installed Updates control panel window, you can uninstall any update by selecting it and then clicking the Uninstall button. This can be useful if you’ve installed a problematic update, but it’s something to be careful with. Do your research and make sure other people are reporting similar problems with the update and make sure you create a system restore point or back up your computer before you uninstall any updates. After you uninstall the update, you’ll also want to take steps to block that update in the future, if possible.
There also a few options you can set governing how Windows Update works. On the main Windows Update screen, the “Change active hours” link lets you set specific hours when Windows Update can restart your computer and the “Restart options” link lets you temporarily override the active hours you’ve set up. To find additional options, click the “Advanced Options” link.
The Advanced Options page offers several options. The “Give me updates for other Microsoft products when I update Windows” option is pretty self-explanatory, and is useful if you’re using Microsoft Office or other Microsoft apps. You can also have Windows automatically sign in for you to finish installing an update if it needs to restart while applying the update.
The option to defer feature updates is an interesting one, and is only available on Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, and Education editions. By default, Windows will download and install all updates automatically, including security updates and new features. If you select the “Defer upgrades” option, Windows will still download and install security updates automatically, but will hold off on downloading other types of updates for, as Microsoft puts it, “several months.” How long it actually defers these upgrades is not clear.
In Windows 7
The Windows Update feature in Windows 7 is different enough from later versions of Windows that it’s worth talking about a bit on its own to highlight those differences. The process is a little less automatic and gives you a bit more control over what updates you install and when. To access Windows Updates, just hit Start, type “Windows Update,” and then hit Enter.
Windows Update divides updates into “important” and “optional”. Important updates are selected for download and installation by default. Optional updates are not selected. To control what updates are installed, just click the pertinent link.
The window that opens allows you to select each update you want to install.
If you have updates on the list that you know you won’t ever install and would like to stop seeing them, just right-click one or more updates and then choose “Hide updates” from the context menu.
If you want to see your hidden updates again, return to the main Windows Update screen and click the “Restore hidden updates” link.
When you return the main Windows Update window and click the “Install updates” button, all the important and optional updates you’ve selected are downloaded and installed. Some updates will require that you agree to a MS EULA before the installation can proceed, but you’ll be able to agree to all necessary EULAs before the real updating process begins so that you don’t have to hang around and watch the entire installation happen.
Some updates will require a system restart, but you’ll have the option to postpone the restart for a few hours or until you reboot manually.
Windows 7 also allows you to change a number of settings governing how Windows installs updates. You can have Windows automatically check for and install new important updates, turn automatic updating off altogether, or have Windows check for updates, but notify you before downloading them. Other options let you control whether recommended updates are installed along with important updates, what users can install updates, and whether other Microsoft products than Windows are updated, too.
To uninstall updates in Windows 7, just head to Control Panel > Uninstall a Program, and then click “View installed updates.” Select an update and then click the “Uninstall” button. Again, do your research and make sure other people are reporting similar problems with the update and make sure you create a system restore point or back up your computer before you uninstall any updates.
Keep Third Party Apps Up to Date
Keeping Windows updated is very important, but it doesn’t end there. You want to make sure your other apps are updated as well. Aside from bug fixes and new features, updating your apps ensures that you fix the inevitable security flaws that pop up in common third party apps like Adobe Flash, Java, and so on. The hassle with keeping third-party apps updated is that different products require you to check for and perform updates in different ways.
Some third-party apps, like those provided by Apple, have built-in updaters that automatically check for new updates and notify you so that you can download and install them.
Security software, like antivirus apps, are especially important to keep updated. Most have automatic updaters built in. Still, it’s important to check up on them once in a while–like before you run a manual scan–just to make sure. As an example, Windows Defender gets regular updates for virus definitions through Windows Updates, but still offers the ability to manually check for updates when you open it up.
Some other third-party apps, unfortunately, offer no built-in updating features at all, requiring you to go to the product web site to download updates or new versions yourself. They may still notify you, however.
While you can always go through each of your apps individually and check for updates, that can be tedious and you likely won’t remember to update them all–at least not in a timely fashion. To save yourself some time and help ensure that all your apps get updated, you can use a utility like Secunia Personal Software Inspector, Patch My PC Updater, or Ninite Updater, which will run a check against all apps installed on your computer and let you know what updates are available. Both tools also offer direct links to patches and updates for you to download and install. You can also set it to run in the background for continuous monitoring for updates.
Ninite Updater is the simplest of the three tools, but costs $99 a year–but it does all the work for you, including installing the updates. And while it works very well, it also supports fewer apps.
Of the free options, we like Secunia Personal Software the best. Once installed, it runs in the background, monitoring for updates. When it finds updates, it downloads and installs them automatically by default if it can, freeing you from having to worry about it at all. For those few updates it can’t install, it will notify you that an update is available so that you can install it yourself. If you prefer, you can also configure Secunia PSI to automatically download, but not install updates, or to simply notify you when updates are available so that you can choose whether to download them at all. This provides a good bit of flexibility and control so that you can be in charge of exactly what updates are applied if you’d rather Secunia PSI not just handle it all for you automatically.
While Secunia provides a cleaner interface and nicer automatic options, Patch My PC is another good option worth checking out. The big difference is that it’s a portable utility, so there’s no need to install it. You just run the tool, which also makes it ideal for inclusion on a USB utility drive if you manage multiple computers. This also means it does not continuously monitor your PC. You’ll need to run Patch My PC when you want to scan your computer for apps that need updating. There is, however, an option for creating a scheduled task in Windows that will run the program whenever you want.
Keep Hardware Drivers Up to Date
Hardware drivers are kind of a special case. In most cases, you can take more of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to drivers. Windows will download hardware drivers for most of your devices and keep those drivers up to date automatically if necessary. And for the most part, you should just let that happen. These drivers have been fully tested not only by the manufacturer, but also by Microsoft, so they are the most likely drivers to be stable and error-free.
That said, there are times you’ll want to use the manufacturer’s drivers instead, and make sure they’re kept up to date. Microsoft’s drivers tend to be stripped down to just the basic driver’s themselves, and don’t always include extra features you might get from the manufacturer’s version. This is particularly true of drivers for graphics cards. You can get full drivers from both NVIDIA and AMD, complete with special control panels that include loads of extra functionality. In addition, manufacturers release new drivers much more often than drivers get updated through Windows Update, and sometimes that can be important. Again, graphics card drivers provide a good example. When new games come out, manufacturers often optimize their drivers to be able to play those games better or fix bugs that prevent them from being played at all. If you’re using drivers from Windows Update, it may take a long time before you have access to those fixes.
Even seemingly simple things like mouse drivers can have extra features you might need. For example, some manufacturers include extra features in their drivers for controlling what buttons do, accessing better motion controls, or even programming macros. The best advice we can give is that you let Windows handle drivers for everything you can, but install manufacturer drivers when you know there are extra features you need.
So, obviously when you’re getting drivers through Windows Update, you can just rely on Windows to keep them up to date. But how do you keep them up to date when you’re getting them through the manufacturer? The answer, of course, is that it depends on the manufacturer.
If you’ve just got a device or two you’ve installed manufacturer drivers for, especially if the driver adds extra software features, the chances are high that the software checks for updates automatically or provides you with a quick way to check manually. For example, I’m using an NVIDA graphics card with their drivers and extra control software called the NVIDIA GeForce Experience installed. The software notifies me when new drivers are available and I can install them right from their interface.
The manufacturer of your computer may also have drivers available from their website. Usually, you can visit their site, locate your system, and see what drivers are available. Some websites can even install a small tool that lets them scan your computer and identify appropriate drivers. You can then choose which drivers you want to download and install. However, our previous advice still applies: when possible, just let Windows Update handle your drivers. Grab a driver update from the manufacturer only if you know you need a specific version or extra features.
Some manufacturers even include updating apps along with Windows that can install updates for drivers and extra apps that came with your system. By and large, these are okay sources for driver updates, and most are even designed to work peacefully alongside Windows Update. While most of these will let you automatically download and install driver updates, we’re still going to keep hammering home the same advice here: let Windows Update handle the bulk of your driver updates and use the utilities only for downloading specific drivers you need.
Finally, you are likely to run into tools out there that promise they can scan all your drivers, back them up, and keep them up to date for you. We advice against using them. Driver updating utilities are typically useless and sometimes even harmful.
So there it is. Keeping your PC updated can sometimes be challenging task, but there are tools available to make it easier. And it’s task that it’s vital you perform if you want your PC to stay safe and reliable.