Get free patching without Windows Update

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

My Sept. 20 and Sept. 27 articles about silent and flawed upgrades involving Windows Update have made many people wonder whether they should really trust Microsoft’s installer.

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Fortunately, there are alternatives to Windows Update that will keep your system fully patched without costing you a dime.

It’s easy to replace Windows Update’s functions

In my previous columns, I reported that Windows Update has been periodically installing at least a few small executable files without notice to users, even when those users have selected a do-not-install option in the Automatic Updates control panel. This stealthy behavior upsets many people, but they don’t want to completely do without a method of installing new security patches from Microsoft.

Windows Update (WU) does three things when it scans a PC: it determines which upgrades are needed, downloads the relevant files, and ultimately installs them. Fortunately, you can replace each of these tasks without spending any money.

In doing so, you give up some of the ease of automation offered by WU and Microsoft Update, WU’s big brother, which also upgrades Microsoft Office applications. But the good news is that using alternatives makes it easier to update software from all major vendors, not just Microsoft.

In two previous articles, I explained how to determine which security upgrades a system needs. The best free scanner to diagnose your patching needs is currently Secunia.com’s Online Software Inspector. My Sept. 9 article explains how to use the service with Internet Explorer. A Sept. 13 article explains the steps using Firefox.

I’ll show you today how to add to your monthly Software Inspector routine an alternative to Windows Update.

Not many completely free alternatives exist, but there are a few that are worth examining:

• The Software Patch
• Windows Updates Downloader
• Microsoft Download Center
• AutoPatcher
• WindizUpdate

The Software Patch is my number-one pick

The best updating tool I’ve found is a service called The Software Patch (SP). This Web site provides not only Microsoft security updates but also a great deal more. The site includes necessary hardware drivers and updates, Microsoft Office and WordPerfect service packs, patches for Adobe and Corel products, updates for games, and more.

Pros of using SP. The Software Patch has many positive attributes:
  • The site is well organized, grouping its downloads hierarchically by product type (hardware or software), then by subcomponent, and finally by whether an update is “essential” or “optional.”

  • The service links to the vendors’ own sites (Microsoft, Adobe, etc.) to download updates, so you don’t have to worry that the patches were somehow altered by a third party. Since SP doesn’t store patches on its own server, the service is unlikely to run into legal tangles with Microsoft.

  • I was able to download and install a handful of Windows patches from Software Patch on a test machine. Windows Update had failed to install these same patches due to the bug I reported in the Sept. 27 issue.
Cons of using SP. No site is perfect, of course. Among the downsides to using the Software Patch are the following:
  • The site is supported by advertising, including pop-up ads, some of which manage to evade pop-up blockers.

  • The site has no downloads for Windows 2000 or earlier versions of the OS.

  • Navigating to Microsoft.com via SP doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily avoid being checked by Redmond’s servers for Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) compliance. For example, if you download Microsoft’s Windows Defender, a WGA check is built into the program’s installer. (But also note that Microsoft.com doesn’t currently require WGA compliance to obtain most of its security patches rated “critical.”)

  • Software Patch lacks some useful tools found at Microsoft’s Download Center — for example, MBSA (Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer). In cases like this, you can usually find an alternative source for the program. For example, FileHippo.com offers a download of MBSA, both the current version 2.0.1 and the beta version 2.1.
 
The software patch
Figure 1. The Software Patch site provides ways to upgrade a wide variety of products.

Other system-updating possibilities fall short

In addition to Software Patch, other solutions have may have value for some users.

The Windows Updates Downloader is Microsoft-only. If you find yourself downloading a large number of Microsoft updates every month, you may like a free utility called Windows Updates Downloader (WUD).

Created by Jean-Sebastien Carle, a frequent contributor to MSFN (Microsoft Software Forum Network), WUD makes it easy to select which patches you need and then download them all with a single click. Although WUD was designed to slipstream updates into new installs of Windows, it can also be used for downloading patches for existing installations.

Unfortunately, the tool is designed to download Microsoft patches only; it provides no options for getting updates for non-Microsoft products. In addition, keeping up to date requires you to download new Update Lists from the WUD site each month. And because the product automates downloading only, you still have to launch each update’s installer one by one.

Microsoft Download Center is disorganized. Another option that avoids using MU or WU is to use the Securities & Updates section of Microsoft’s own Download Center, where you can obtain patches, documentation, and other tools.

Unfortunately for the average user, the listings at this Microsoft site are not well organized, with important patches mixed in with optional utilities, technical seminars, and other content. Moreover, it offers no patches for non-Microsoft products.

AutoPatcher is out of commission. Until recently, one popular source of patches for Windows and other products was AutoPatcher. Unfortunately for the service’s fans, however, Microsoft requested that the site suspend its offerings in August. The software giant cited security concerns, because patches were being stored on AutoPatcher’s server instead of being downloaded directly from Microsoft.

Despite that setback, project leader Antonis Kaladis hopes to launch a comparable replacement service, perhaps as soon as this month, according to a post on the AutoPatcher site. Until then, users must content themselves with other sources for patches.

WindizUpdate isn’t up to snuff. Another patch-download site is WindizUpdate, owned by Phil Young of Auckland, New Zealand. Unfortunately, the site requires an unsigned plug-in for your browser, frequently asks to scan your Registry, and lacks updates for non-Microsoft applications. Editorial director Brian Livingston gave the service a tepid review in the Windows Secrets Newsletter on June 29, 2006.

Keeping your system up to date requires that you analyze, download, and install patches on a regular basis. Secunia’s Online Software Inspector does a great job of system analysis. In addition, The Software Patch gives you one-stop upgrades for a variety of platforms and applications.

The Software Patch is the clear winner for patch downloading. In combination with Secunia’s service, The Software Patch is a welcome solution. If you need to keep Windows 2000 patched, however, the Windows Updates Downloader can be a useful assistant as well.

Readers David Todd and Leland G. Whitlock will each receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice for their help in researching this topic. Have a tip to share? Send us your comments via the Windows Secrets contact page.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the magazine’s Here’s How section.
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