Microsoft won't fix the most frustrating thing about Windows

Commentary: The worst feature of Windows 10 is automatic updates -- even when you're in the middle of something.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
8 min read

I walked away for lunch -- and came back to this.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Maybe you're delivering a presentation to a huge audience. Maybe you're taking an online test. Maybe you just need to get some work done on a tight deadline.

Windows doesn't care.

Windows will take control of your computer, force-feed it updates and flip the reset switch automatically -- and there's not a damn thing you can do about it, once it gets started.

If you haven't saved your work, it's gone. Your browser tabs are toast. And don't expect to use your computer again soon; depending on the speed of your drive and the size of the update, it could be anywhere from 10 minutes to well over an hour before your PC is ready for work.

As far as I'm concerned, it's the single worst thing about Windows. It's only gotten worse in Windows 10 . And when I poked around Microsoft, the overarching message I received was that Microsoft has no interest in fixing it.

Editors' note, March 3, 2017: Microsoft heard us, loud and clear. The company's completely changing this behavior in the Windows 10 Creators Update, coming this spring, so that you can "snooze" a restart indefinitely.

How Windows Update sabotaged me at work -- more than once

It felt like karma.

On September 1, 2010, I sat within speaking distance of Apple CEO Steve Jobs , ready to help live-blog his every word. But my Windows laptop -- a Windows laptop in a sea of MacBooks! -- wasn't quite working properly. I figured it just needed a quick reboot, so that's what I did.

But because Windows had recently downloaded some updates, my computer decided it would be a good time to install all of them. So I spent the next 15 to 20 minutes internally screaming at my PC while Steve Jobs presented the new iPod Touch .

(Yes, it would have been slightly funnier if Jobs had announced new MacBooks.)

It was the first of three occasions that a forced Windows update would totally destroy my workflow at a critical moment -- once crippling my computer when I had a hot scoop to share with the world.

Then, Windows 10 came along to add insult to injury.

Imagine this: With no warning, a prompt pops up on your screen telling you that your Windows 10 laptop is about to restart. Even though you know you're about to lose access to your computer, there's not a damn thing you can do about it -- the buttons are all grayed out. If you're really unlucky and Windows is installing a major update, the progress meter may be a tease: Once it reaches 100 percent, your computer might reboot a second or third time before you finally get control again.

I've personally seen this -- or something similar --happen five times over the past year.

And it turns out lots of people have stories just like mine.

Worldwide Windows tales of woe

There's software developer Dylan Beattie, whose laptop decided to shut down while he was giving a talk in front of 200-odd developers in Malmo, Sweden, and found he had to wing the rest of the presentation without his slides. "I wasn't terribly happy," recalls Beattie, adding that he now has a habit of explicitly running Windows Update a few hours before his presentations "just to make sure it's not going to spring any surprises."

Alex Gibson, a 3D printing consultant, says he no longer trusts Windows to manage his 3D printer after his computer forced a restart near the end of a 6-hour-long print job for a customer in November. He tells me he's switching to a Raspberry Pi.

Lydricsama, a digital artist from Finland, says she lost hours of work on a commissioned piece she was working on late into the night, leaving her with a bare sketch (instead of a mostly lined and colored illustration) after her machine forced an update back in October. She tells me that while it was her fault for not saving the document more often, Windows also didn't help: "I had no prior warning before it restarted itself." Luckily, her client didn't mind the delay.

Mark Switzer, who goes by the handle Preheat when he plays World of Warcraft, also had his machine restart at a particularly inconvenient time last month. He was in the middle of beating the game's final boss in front of a live Twitch audience. He says he lost most of his viewers that day, a little bit of money (he's an official Twitch partner), and his in-game reward for beating the boss. "Overall it wasn't a huge deal, just very frustrating to have your computer decide these things on its own," he tells me.

Alexsander Stukov, an software engineer who spends days running stress tests and cloning virtual machines, says he's lost hours of work to forced Windows Updates on five separate occasions now. "Windows Update is a terrible piece of software," he tells me, but says he has no other choice: "Our customers use it, and we have to test our software on the same environment."

Then there's Alexandria Seabrook, who says she couldn't complete the online test for a college course this October because of Windows 10 updates -- and whose professor wasn't quite as forgiving as Gibson's and Lyricsama's customers. Busy with midterms, she waited until nearly the last minute before flipping open her Windows 10 computer -- only to watch Windows Update take control of her machine until well after the deadline had passed.

"It was only 20 questions. I could have finished the test on time if it wasn't for the Windows Update," she tells me. She got a 58 on the midterm, and was barely able to bring it up to a C by the end of the semester. "I don't like [Windows], but I'm a college student," she says. "I'm stuck with this laptop literally until it breaks down because I have no money."

When I ask my fellow CNET staffers, many of them chime in with stories, too: how Windows decided to reboot in the middle of a liveblog, or an expense report, or while taking notes in the middle of an interview -- or in the airport, right before boarding a plane, without enough power left to actually finish the install. Once, Windows 8 even force-updated CNET editor Stephen Shankland's machine when he was in the middle of a Skype interview with NPR.

Microsoft's response

I know what you're thinking: "How many times do you have to get burned before you get a Mac?" Or maybe a Chromebook. Or even an iPad with a keyboard cover -- anything but a Windows machine that can just spontaneously restart while you're in the middle of mission-critical work.

That's pretty much the direction I've been leaning in recent months. And after hinting there might be a MacBook purchase in my immediate future, I asked a Microsoft spokesperson if the company was doing anything about forced updates.

Here's the statement I got:

Once a machine is upgraded to Windows 10, it will remain current through Windows Update for the supported lifetime of the device, with safety and security, productivity, and entertainment value over time. This is what we mean when we talk about delivering Windows as a service, and it is one of our core inspirations for Windows 10. We'll keep listening to our customers, improving the experience month after month. Windows 10 is an operating system that will run on a range of devices -- from Xbox to PCs, phones to tablets and tiny gadgets -- all of which are connected and kept up-to-date by Windows Update. Both enterprises and consumers benefit. The optimum way to ensure our customers are running the best Windows is to get them the latest updates for Windows 10. Delivering Windows 10 as a service means we can offer ongoing security updates, new features and capabilities - we'd like to make sure people can get access to the latest Windows 10 updates as soon as they are available.

In other words, Microsoft thinks it's super important that you get the updates. "Auto-restarts" are a feature, not a bug.

In fact, Microsoft has been actively getting rid of ways to keep users from disabling automatic updates: in Windows 10 Pro and above, you used to be able to do that from the Group Policy tool. As of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, though, that option is gone. (You can still schedule a restart, but it involves doing a lot of work to change the annoying "ready or not, here it comes" default.)

And while the next version of Windows will let you stave off updates for a 35-day period (if you paid extra for a Pro, Enterprise or Education-grade copy of Windows, which sounds like a moderate form of blackmail), my understanding is that even those versions won't let you cancel an update that's already been delayed and is now about to occur.

In other words: you'll be helplessly watching your computer turn itself off, just the same as usual.

Spontaneous Windows Updates are basically free ads for Apple

Don't get me wrong: I appreciate that these updates can help keep my PC secure. It's a heck of a lot better to have Microsoft patching holes in my computer's software instead of having to deal with damage after the fact with third-party antivirus software. (Particularly because the likes of Symantec and McAfee tend to bog down computers .)

And I'm not an anti-vaxxer: I understand that by patching my PC, I'm helping to keep it from spreading malware to other computers, too.

But I think the company has overcorrected with these forced updates. We should be able to decide when to get our vaccines -- not have the doctor walk into our house, grab us by the hair and shove the medicine down our throats.

I think it's time we send Microsoft a message that this isn't okay -- that the computers we bought and paid for with our hard-earned dollars are ours to use whenever we want, not just when Microsoft says so. I need a reliable PC, a computer that's ready for action whenever I need to report on a story, jot down notes from an interview, or liveblog a keynote. Share this story if you feel the same.

There's got to be a better way of handling these updates. Perhaps by automatically installing them when a PC and its owner are both asleep? That's what college freshman Alexandria Seabrook suggested, right after she told me how furious she was with her Windows machine. Or maybe Microsoft could take a page out of the Apple and Android playbooks and let users decide when to update.

I generally like Windows. But if I can't find a Windows PC that's always ready for work, my next computer will be a Mac.

(If you've been victim of a particularly nasty Windows Update, write to me at sean.hollister@cbsinteractive.com. I'll be compiling the best stories for a future article.)