Software that updates your other software

Fred Langa

The release of Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) 3.0 prompts a test drive of the new version, plus six alternative general-purpose auto-update tools.

One surprise: Some of these automatic-update programs can worsen your PC’s condition.

The promise and perils of effortless updating

The theory is great: general-purpose automatic software updaters work to keep your entire PC up to date with minimal hassle.

Typical auto-updaters scan your system to learn the version numbers of the software you’ve installed. Then they compare those version numbers against their databases of current version numbers. If a given piece of installed software isn’t current, the updater software either notifies you that a newer version is available or (if you authorize it) automatically downloads and installs the new version for you.

But there can be problems.

For one thing, a higher version number shouldn’t be an automatic green light for updating because newer versions aren’t always better than the old. Sometimes a patch or an update creates new problems that are worse than whatever issue the update was designed to correct.

This is especially true with experimental or unfinished alpha and beta software releases and with drivers (software that Windows uses to control a system’s hardware).

Why newer versions aren’t always better

For example, in recent years hardware vendors have tried to simplify their driver libraries with unified driver architectures, where one driver package may support a wide range of hardware products and versions.

A new release of the driver package may be intended to correct a bug or glitch within any one of the many products and versions the package supports. But the new driver version might have absolutely nothing to do with your specific setup. If you constantly chase the newest driver versions, you could be churning your system to no purpose. You risk introducing new bugs, instabilities, and other trouble for no good reason.

This kind of problem illustrates why all update tools (including Windows Update) need to be approached and used with caution. In that regard, Susan Bradley’s regular Patch Watch column here in Windows Secrets can be a godsend.

I never let Windows Update, or any other tool, automatically update drivers on my systems. In fact, I update drivers only if my hardware isn’t working properly or if I’m notified that my current driver contains a serious security vulnerability. Absent those problems, if a driver ain’t broke, I don’t fix it.

I’m more relaxed about updating my other software, for two main reasons. First, the tools I use (mostly Windows Update and Secunia PSI) have proved themselves acceptably reliable on my specific setups and rarely cause trouble with bad or unnecessary updates.

Second, I’m fanatical about backups. In those relatively rare cases when an update causes a problem, I can easily and rapidly — often in just a minute or two — roll the system back to its pre-trouble state. (Want to see how? Check out the May 12, 2011, Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net.”)

Secunia recently released a major upgrade to PSI, so it was a good time to stop and survey the auto-updater landscape before moving ahead. I test-drove the new PSI version 3.0, plus six competing products. Here’s what I found.

Secunia Personal Software Inspector 3.0

I’ve long been a fan of Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) [free; site]. Although I use the locally installed version, Secunia also offers a free online version here. (Commercial versions of both the local and online tools are also available here.) I have PSI installed on all my systems and have recommended it many times in these pages.

The new version still does what its predecessors did: It monitors the software on your PC and automatically updates, by default, any out-of-date software it finds. I’ve found PSI reliable enough that I allow these auto-updates to occur, but PSI also lets you disable the auto-updates if you prefer to manually verify the need for any recommended update.

In non-automatic mode, PSI presents you with links to newer versions of your software. PSI doesn’t force-feed you updates you don’t want.

In the same vein, you can also tell PSI to ignore certain software. I’ve found this useful when I don’t like a new version of a favorite program. I can keep my older version and tell PSI not to worry about updating that particular software anymore.

PSI also makes no attempt to monitor your drivers. I like that, for the reasons stated earlier.

In short, PSI 3.0 kept all the best parts of earlier versions. The most obvious change in version 3.0 is a completely new look. (See Figures 1 through 3.)

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Figure 1. Secunia PSI 3.0's interface has been greatly simplified. When everything's up to date, no details are shown.

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Figure 2. You can still drill down for program-by-program information if you wish.

Some software (such as VLC Media Player) requires that you manually trigger updates. In those cases (or if you’ve opted for all-manual operation), PSI provides preconfigured links by which you can authorize and trigger each separate update, as you see in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. When you want or need to operate manually, PSI provides preconfigured links for you to work with.

PSI installs without unwanted toolbars, unrelated software, or other extra downloads. It’s ad-free. And if you ever need to uninstall PSI, it removes itself cleanly.

It’s excellent software, and I highly recommend it.

CNET’s TechTracker auto-update tool

CNET’s free TechTracker (site) works much like Secunia PSI and with similar options. Here, I’ll focus on what’s different.

TechTracker installs easily, but the download includes several “special offers” for unrelated software. You can opt out of these; if you do opt out, the extra software is not installed.

When you run TechTracker, it scans your system and produces a small window that contains a list of any out-of-date software it found. You then click on a Get Updates button to open an ad-supported webpage in your default browser. (See Figure 4.)

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Figure 4. After scanning your system, TechTracker lists suggested software updates.

CNET is in the software-download business — it runs the huge Download.com software library. With this vested interest in promoting download activity, TechTracker may be a bit too aggressive in suggesting updates. In fact, the TechTracker site even makes the dubious assertion that “New software is the best software.”

Because of this philosophy, TechTracker routinely offers beta versions among its recommended updates, such as the beta version of 7-Zip 9.22 shown listed in Figure 4. Unless you’re very careful to read the fine print of the download details, you could end up replacing stable, working software with incomplete, buggy beta versions.

But if you use it cautiously (to avoid installing unfinished software on your machine), TechTracker can do a good job. It earns my provisional recommendation.

FileHippo.com’s Update Checker tool

FileHippo.com’s free Update Checker (site) is very much like TechTracker (see above) in execution and overall philosophy.

Like TechTracker, Update Checker scans your system and then opens an ad-supported webpage in your default browser. (See Figure 5.)

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Figure 5. FileHippo.com's Update Checker strives for simplicity in its presentation, but you can still drill down to obtain detailed information.

Like CNET, FileHippo is in the download business, so Update Checker shares TechTracker’s philosophy of aggressively pushing new software, including potentially dangerous beta versions. But as Figure 5 shows, Update Checker’s graphic design makes these beta versions very obvious, which should help you avoid accidental installations of potentially destabilizing software.

If used judiciously, Update Checker can do a good job and so also earns my provisional recommendation.

Four unrecommended auto-update tools

I won’t waste your time in long descriptions of tools I don’t recommend. Instead, let me just cut to the chase and tell you why I dislike these offerings.

► SUMo, the Software Update Monitor (site), was a total disaster for me. It’s bundled with very aggressively installed foistware toolbars and something called “Powerpack” software. It also tries hard to coerce you into providing demographic information. I opted out of all the extras and bundled apps that I could, and I did not provide the demographic information.

At the end of the SUMo install, my copy of Malwarebytes popped up a warning that it had detected “Trojan.downloader.”

I ran SUMo’s uninstall routine, but later found left-behind Registry settings and some kind of still-installed software called “Relevant Knowledge.” There had been no mention of that software at any point during the installation process.

SUMo also changed my default browser’s home page.

In my opinion, SUMo is complete junk. I recommend that you avoid it entirely.

► Glarysoft is a reputable publisher with some very good tools, but I can’t count its Software Update (site) among them.

It misidentified one fully current software utility as being three versions behind and reported that a number of OEM-installed programs and drivers on a brand-new laptop were out of date. (They were not: I checked on the manufacturer’s site.) I’m guessing that Software Update was judging driver update suitability solely by version number &#8212 the “version chasing” problem I mentioned at the top of this article.

There were other minor issues, too, but the above is enough for me to not recommend this product.

► The Carambis Software Updater (site) is a rough piece of work with numerous issues. But to me, its worst failing is the inclusion of alpha software in its list of updates. Alpha software is first-draft stuff. Installing alpha software isn’t an update; it’s an experiment!

Software Updater also generated false alarms, incorrectly flagging some fully current software as out of date, and it did not uninstall cleanly.

► Nabber.org’s open-source Appupdater (site) initially looked promising, but I found it very hard to set up and use. In fact, I never got it to work correctly — not even once.

Some final (for now) recommendations

After these informal test drives of seven auto-update tools, I believe that Secunia PSI is still the best of the current bunch. It’s well behaved and has worked reliably for me. It’s free for personal use and ships without foistware add-ons, toolbars, and other unwanted baggage.

But if Secunia PSI doesn’t work for you — no software works for everyone, on all systems, all the time — either CNET’s TechTracker or FileHippo’s Update Checker can get the job done. Just be sure to read the fine print and avoid accidentally installing beta software.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-07-26:

Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.