Getting the Most from Windows Update

March 8, 2008 – 2:04 PM

Imagine having an assistant that helps you by keeping track of what software you have installed on your computer, letting you know when new versions are available, and alerting you to potential security problems. Sure, in a big company, people like this exist: they’re called network administrators. Unless you’re married to a network administrator, you might think that you don’t have access to the same capability when your using your home computer–but as long as you’re running Windows 98 or later, you do!

Windows Update is a built-in feature of Windows NT 4.0, Windows 98, Windows Millennium Edition, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. At your command, it can check the software you have installed on your machine against the list of current versions from Microsoft, letting you know whether newer versions are available. The update service works for Windows system components, Microsoft applications like the Windows Media player and Windows movie maker, and many Windows device drivers. As a bonus, Windows update also includes early access to beta versions of selected applications and components.

Action go to the Start menu and find the Windows Update item. Select it, and wait for the Windows Update page to load in Internet Explorer’s window. If you’re using Windows XP, find the “Scan for updates” link; for other versions of Windows, look for the “Product Updates” link is. These links are what you’ll use to see what new components are available.

How It Works

It’s important to understand that Windows Update doesn’t send any information about your computer’s configuration to Microsoft. The first time you run Windows Update on a computer, you’ll see a prompt asking you if it’s OK to install the Windows update ActiveX control. When loaded by a Web page, this ActiveX control gathers information about the versions of software installed on your machine, then downloads a list of available components from Microsoft. By comparing the two lists, the control can figure out which versions of components you don’t already have. You simply have to scroll through the list of available updates and decide which ones you want. Be default, all critical updates are selected automatically for download. To read detailed instructions about how to use Windows Update on a computer that is not running Windows XP, see the Knowledge Base article Q198344.

Of course, if you’re using Windows 2000 or Windows XP (Home or Professional), Windows Update will only work if you’re logged in as a user that has administrative privileges.

What You’ll Find on Windows Update

When Windows Update shows you the list of available updates for your machine, you’ll see that the updates are grouped into several different categories. Of course, the exact contents of each of these categories can be different on two seemingly identical machines, since they might actually have very different Windows component configurations. Here are the categories you’ll see:

  • Critical updates and service packs: 8200549You should always install pertinent items in this category whenever they’re offered?this is where Microsoft puts important security fixes so that they’ll be immediately visible. 8200549If you install it, the critical update notification tool will alert you when new critical updates are released. (Note that TechNet also has a spiffy service pack finder that you can use to find service packs for applications that run on Windows). It’s not necessary to install updates for programs that you aren’t using; for example, if you’ve disabled Windows Media Player, you don’t need to install updates to it.
  • Picks of the month: Items here are featured programs or components that Microsoft thinks you’ll like. For example, as I write this the pick of the month is the latest version of Windows Media Player; the contents of this section will change as Microsoft releases new programs (and new versions of existing ones).
  • Advanced security updates: When a new security problem is found in Windows, Microsoft responds as quickly as possible with a security patch to fix the problem. Although Microsoft diligently tests these patches, due to the need for a rapid response, they are not as tested as service packs or product releases. Because of this, it is recommended that you only install the patches when they solve problems with programs or features that you are using or have enabled. If you are not using the feature that the patch fixes, it is recommended that you wait for the fix to come in the next service pack release.
  • Recommended updates: Updates that fall into this category update existing functionality in Microsoft Windows. These updates are not necessary, but as they are improved versions of software already on your system, it is recommended that you download them.
  • Additional Windows features: These are new features that you don’t have installed. They are not necessary in order for Windows to run, but provide additional functionality that you may be interested in taking advantage of.
  • Device drivers: A device driver is a program that allows the Windows software to talk to your computer’s hardware such as a sound or video card. Often new versions of these drivers will be released to take better advantage of the hardware in your computer. If Windows Update finds a new version of a device driver for a piece of hardware that is installed in your computer, it will display it here.

Checking For and Downloading Updates

If you are running Windows 2000 or Windows XP you can launch Windows Update from the Start Menu. However, for any compatible OS, you can launch Windows Update by loading Internet Explorer and navigating to There are several applications that may interfere with the Windows Update service. These are listed in the Microsoft Knowledge Base in article Q241234.

To Launch Windows Update on a computer running Windows XP

Point to Start All Programs and select Windows Update.

If this is your first time running Windows Update, you will be prompted to download an ActiveX component. This component is necessary in order for Windows Update to run. Once the component is downloaded, it starts to scan your computer. If you have already downloaded the component, then you are given the choice to “Scan for updates”.

When the scan is completed, you can chose which updates you want to install. By default, all of the critical updates have already been selected to install. Unless you have a reason not to install critical updates, you should always install them. However, none of the other updates are installed by default, so take some time to read through their descriptions and decide what you want. Most updates have a “read more” link that gives you a little more detail about what the update is for and what benefits it will give you.

Once you have decided what you want to install, click “Review and install updates” from any of the update pages. This will take you to a summary page showing you all of the updates you have chosen to install. If you are happy with your choices, click “Install Now”.

Using the Critical Update Notification Feature

Windows Update is a handy tool, but getting the most from it requires you to do? nothing special! Actually, there is one small thing you have to do: turn on the Critical Update Notification tool. The notification tool periodically checks for critical security updates on the Windows Update site, then notifies you by flashing a small icon in the system tray. If you click on the icon, you’ll be taken to the relevant Windows Update page; this cuts the time it takes for you to learn of, and install, new security patches with zero additional effort on your part.

How do you get this wonderful tool? From Windows Update, of course! Look in the “Recommended Updates” section for a tool named “Windows Critical Update Notification 3.0”, then check the box next to it. When you click on the Download button on the Windows Update page, the notification tool will automatically install.

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