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How to update Windows 8.1

Microsoft rolls out updates the second Tuesday of each month, many of them critical. How can you be sure to catch all these updates?


Like other Windows versions, Windows 8.1 receives its share of periodic updates, some of them critical, others not so much. Either way, it's important to set up Windows 8.1 to make sure you're receiving the necessary updates.

Microsoft typically reserves the second Tuesday of the month, dubbed Patch Tuesday, to roll out the latest updates for its various operating systems and other applications. Most of the updates are designed to patch bugs, shore up security holes, and fine-tune various behind-the-scenes features. The update interface in Windows 8 and 8.1 is a bit different than the one in other versions of Windows. In this article, I'll explain and go through the update process in Windows 8.1 to make sure you're set up properly.

In versions prior to Windows 8, you would access the update screen via Control Panel. Open Control Panel and click on the icon for Windows Update. From the Windows Update screen, you can trigger or set several options. In Windows 8.1, you can still go through Control Panel to get to the Windows Update feature. But the same options are also available via the PC Settings screen, so let's look at that screen.

In Windows 8.1, click on the charms bar and then click on the Settings charm. In the Settings panel, click on the link to Change PC Settings. In the PC Settings screen, click on the last option for Update and recovery. Make sure Windows Update is highlighted.

Let's first look at the setting to "Choose how updates get installed," so click on that link. Click on the drop-down box for Important updates and you'll see four choices: Install updates automatically (recommended), Download updates but let me choose whether to install them, Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them, and Never check for updates (not recommended).

Which one should you choose? Microsoft naturally wants you to pick the first option, and that's usually your best bet as it makes the update process more seamless. There have been instances in the past of a Windows update causing problems, requiring its removal or forcing Microsoft to roll out another update to fix the first one. That's why some people may be more comfortable downloading or checking the updates but not installing them automatically. I keep the first option enabled and still feel that it's the easiest way to go.

Before we move to the next step, it's time to explain the different categories of updates. Microsoft divides its updates into three flavors: Important, Recommended, and Optional. The first two categories include updates that you should install while the third offers updates that may be nice to have but aren't absolutely necessary. For example, a critical update that fixes a security hole or bug would be considered an important update.

By default, important and recommended updates are automatically installed if you choose the option to install updates automatically. However, you can change this behavior. On the screen to "Choose how updates get installed," you can uncheck the check box for Recommended updates, which means only important updates would get installed automatically. However, I advise you to keep that check box checked as you typically want the recommended updates installed automatically.

Updates considered optional must be manually selected to be installed. For example, the Windows 8.1 August update that rolled out on Tuesday must be manually selected if you wish to install it. That update appears in the list of available updates as Update for Windows 8.1 (KB2975719).

At the "Choose how updates get installed" screen, you'll also see an option for Microsoft Update. If you run other Microsoft software, such as Office, make sure this check box is checked so that you can receive updates for those other products.

When you're done choosing how updates get installed, click the Apply button and then click the left arrow at the top to return to the previous screen.

Now it's time to see if any updates are awaiting you. To do that, click the Check now button. If any updates are available, Windows will tell you that it found new updates and will install them for you.

You have a couple of choices. If you want to install the updates right away, click the View details link. Scroll down the list to see all the updates ready for installation. Remember to scroll all the way to the bottom of the list to view any optional updates, such as the Windows 8.1 August update, or Update for Windows 8.1 (KB2975719). Click the check box for that update if you wish to install it.

You can now scroll to the top of the screen and click on the Install button if you wish to install all of the updates now.

How to update Windows 8.1 Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Okay, but what if you're in the middle of work and don't want to be interrupted with a string of updates? That's where the automatic process comes into play. You don't have to trigger their installation yourself. Windows will keep track of the updates to be installed and at some point install them automatically.

The next time you restart or shut down Windows, you'll likely see an option to update it at that point. Or the next time you log into Windows, you may be reminded that updates are waiting to be installed. The whole point of the process is not to interrupt your workflow with an annoying and lengthy batch of updates.

This also means that you don't even have to check the PC Settings screen for available updates. Windows will eventually install them automatically for you. In Windows 8 and 8.1, you can restart and update right away or you can postpone the restart and update process for up to three days.

Updating Windows can still be a pain in the neck. But at least in Windows 8 and 8.1, you can control the process so that it's seamless and that it happens on your own time.