Five rules for trouble-free software updates

It often pays to wait before installing new versions of your system software and applications.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Microsoft Windows 8.1 start screen
Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

If you think you've been spending more time than usual waiting for your software to update, you may be right.

The release of Windows 8.1, OS X Mavericks, and iOS 7.0.3 has given us update fatigue. This weekend it took me a total of 7 hours to install all three upgrades: 2.5 hours for Windows 8.1, 3.5 hours for Mavericks, and 1 hour for iOS 7.0.3.

Even though the updates installed without a hitch, most people have no need to rush applying the upgrades. Taking your time is one of my "update rules." These guidelines will help keep your software updates from causing problems of their own.

Rule No. 1: Don't be in a hurry to install milestone upgrades
Aside from security patches, there are few must-have software updates. Early adopters are the ones most likely to encounter glitches, so you can benefit from waiting for a mature update by letting somebody else discover the problems.

Soon after Microsoft released Windows RT 8.1, the company temporarily suspended distribution of the update for ARM-based devices due to a problem that "bricked" some RT systems, according to a story earlier this month by Mary Jo Foley. The patched update was available a couple days later.

Topher Kessler reports on Mavericks causing some external drives to lose data. And Josh Lowensohn describes the fixes in Apple's iOS 7.0.3, which the company made after reports that the iOS 7 interface was causing motion sickness in some users..

Rule No. 2: Set programs to update automatically
Problematic updates are the exception these days. Applications and systems software should be set to download and apply updates automatically, which is usually the default setting.

The Windows Support site explains how to open Windows Update in Windows 7: click the Start button, type "update," and select Windows Update. In Windows 8, press the Windows key (if necessary), type "update," and choose "Windows Update settings" from the list.

To change your update settings in Windows 7, click "Change settings." In Windows 8, select "Choose how updates get installed."

Microsoft Windows 8 update settings
The Windows 8 update settings automatically download recommended updates and updates for other Microsoft products. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

If you experience an update glitch, run the Windows Update troubleshooter. The Windows Support site has a Fix-it wizard for Windows 7's updater. To open the troubleshooter on Windows 7, click Start > Control Panel, type "troubleshooter" in the search box, click Troubleshooting, and in the System and Security section, choose Fix Problems with Windows Update.

Go to the Windows Support site to download the Windows Update Troubleshooter for Windows 8.

The Apple Support site explains how to download Mac OS X and app updates from the Mac App Store. The site also describes how to change OS X's weekly automatic-update schedule and how to check for updates manually.

Rule No. 3: If you're busy, tell the updater to wait
The ubiquitous update reminder is the kind of nag that's easy to disregard -- once you've closed the "updates are available" pop-up.

The Notification Center in Mavericks adds the ability to schedule updates. Matt Elliott takes an in-depth look at Mavericks' update options, and Topher Kessler explains how to use the feature to effectively disable OS X's Notification Center.

One of the biggest hassles of Windows updates is the need to restart to complete the process. The updater provides an option to postpone the restart, but you can prevent automatic restarts by changing your Windows Update settings.

Open the settings as described in Rule No. 2 and choose "Download Updates, but Let Me Choose When to Install Them" on the drop-down menu. On the Today I Found Out site, Daven Hiskey explains how to block automatic restarts in the Professional and Ultimate versions of Windows by using the Group Policy Editor and by editing the Registry.

Rule No. 4: Do it yourself: third-party updaters could be a security risk
In a post from May 2011 I tested three free software-update services and preferred Secunia's Personal Software Inspector.

Secunia is a trusted name in the computer-security industry, and I have no reason to suspect the trustworthiness of any other software-update service. However, any program that you allow to conduct an inventory of your system entails some level of security risk.

As more programs are set to update in the background, it's safer to assume your apps and system software will keep themselves up-to-date. The benefits of a separate software-update application may no longer outweigh the time and effort the updater requires, as well as the security risk it entails.

Rule No. 5: When all else fails, uninstall and reinstall to undo a failed update
There's no shortage of advice for people who encounter software-update failures. The Windows Support site covers how to troubleshoot problems with installing updates. Microsoft's TechNet site suggests solutions for general software-update issues.

In a post from last May I described how I solved a problem with the iTunes updater in Windows 7 by repairing the Apple Software Update program. The Apple Support site explains how to use Software Update in Windows and how to repair Software Update for Windows.

Lifehacker's Adam Dachis provides a primer on software updates that includes Windows, Mac OS X, browsers, and other third-party software.

The fell-swoop approach to troubleshooting irksome updates is to uninstall the program and then reinstall a fresh copy. For example, several times in the past Firefox has failed to apply an update, and only removing the program and downloading the updated version solved the problem.

Bonus tip: If you spend more time updating a program than using it, consider dumping it.

One of the best ways to minimize the amount of time your system spends updating its software is to uninstall the programs you no longer use. You may also want to uninstall the apps you use infrequently, especially those you've downloaded from the Internet.

Rather than using up memory and system resources, it may be more efficient to download and install an up-to-date version of a program you rarely use and then uninstall it when you're done.