You’ll get a new Windows Update, like it or not

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

Microsoft will soon install a new version of Windows Update on your computer, even if you’ve set your PC not to download and install any updates.

With such a potential for confusion, it’s a good idea for you to know what’s going to be done to your machine by this important but often misunderstood tool.

When turning updates off really doesn’t

Windows Secrets first disclosed on Sept. 13, 2007, that Microsoft had been silently downloading Windows Update (WU) executable components on users’ computers — even when the users’ auto-update settings required advance permission. At the time, Microsoft admitted in its Update Product Team blog that it has carried out this practice for many years, as I wrote in a follow-up column.

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This time, Microsoft is being more up-front about its forthcoming refresh of Windows Update. For example, product manager Michelle Haven described in a blog post on July 3 some new features that the upgrade will add.

The new version will reportedly reduce the time WU takes to scan for and send out new updates. In addition, if you use the online version of WU, and you click an update for more information, the new version will offer you more links with additional details.

But the Redmond company hasn’t changed the wording of the Control Panel settings that appear to prevent Windows Update from performing silent downloads — but don’t.

In light of these potentially misleading controls, a few tricks on managing Windows Update are just what the doctor ordered.

To view your Windows Update options in Windows XP, press the Windows key plus R to open the Run box, type control wuaucpl.cpl, and press Enter. In Vista, press the Windows key, type windows update, press Enter, and select Change settings on the left.

According to the aforementioned blog post, the Microsoft Update Product Team considers Windows Update to be turned on when any setting is selected except the last one:

Turn off Automatic Updates (in XP)
Never check for updates (in Vista)

Consequently, Windows Update itself may be updated even if you select an option such as:

Notify me but don’t automatically download or install them (in XP)
Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them (in Vista)

Windows update
Figure 1. Windows Update may automatically install some executable files, even if you set auto-update configuration to require permission.

If you prefer to decide for yourself when and whether to install updates, but you don’t mind the Windows Update app upgrading itself, use either the second or third setting. For total control, select the last option. (You’ll see regular warnings, which is the price of choosing this setting.)

Keep unwanted updates from bugging you

After you read warnings about a specific update — such as the ones Windows Secrets readers regularly see in Susan Bradley’s Patch Watch column — you may decide that the fix is not for you. If you have one of the “notify me” options set (choice 2 or 3), you’ll see an icon and possibly a pop-up menu in the taskbar tray endlessly pestering you to install the update.

To shut off notifications about a particular update in Windows XP, take these steps:

Step 1. Click the Windows Update icon in the taskbar tray to open the Automatic Updates control panel.

Step 2. Select Custom Install (Advanced) and click Next.

Step 3. Uncheck the items you don’t want to install. Make a note of their Knowledge Base numbers in case you change your mind later. Then click Install (to install remaining items) or Close (if no items are checked).

Step 4. When the Hide Updates prompt appears, check Don’t notify me about these updates again and click OK.

Step 5. If you later change your mind and want to install the items, surf on over to Microsoft’s Download Center, enter the update’s KB number in the Search box, and click Go. Follow the on-screen instructions to download and install the update.

To shut off notifications about a particular update in Windows Vista, take these steps:

Step 1. Click the Windows Update icon in the taskbar tray to open the Windows Update control panel.

Step 2. Choose View available updates below the Install Updates button.

Step 3. Find the update you don’t want installed and uncheck its box.

Step 4. Right-click the update name and choose Hide update.

Step 5. Click the close box in the upper-right corner to close the window.

Step 6. To see this and other hidden updates in the future, reopen the Windows Update control panel and click Restore hidden updates in the left pane.

Tips for installing recalcitrant updates

Sometimes an update you want to install never gets loaded despite repeated attempts. What to do?

First, identify any updates that didn’t get installed properly by going to the Windows Update or Microsoft Update site. Choose Start, Windows Update (or Microsoft Update) or Start, All Programs, Windows Update (or Microsoft Update).

In XP, click Review your update history on the left; in Vista, choose View update history. XP shows failed updates with a red X; in Vista, the word “failed” appears in the Status column. (Note that some updates may have failed to install on their first attempt but succeeded subsequently.)

Here’s a checklist of things to try when attempting to coax an update to load:

Consult a troubleshooter. Windows logs troubleshooting info specifically for updates. In Vista’s update history control panel, click the Troubleshoot problems with installing updates link above the list of installed updates.

XP’s troubleshooter may offer more-specific info about the update. Start by checking out your update history as explained above. Click the red X icon to open a window of information about the update. Select and copy the error code in this window.

Browse to Microsoft’s Windows Update Troubleshooter site (you’ll probably need to use Internet Explorer). Press Ctrl+F to open a search dialog, paste the error code into the Find box, and click Next. You may find a link relating to that specific error.

If no such link appears, search for the same error code on Microsoft’s Help and Support site or use one of the support sites I reviewed in my July 10 column. Finally, try skimming through the list of symptoms on the Update Troubleshooter page to see whether any match those you’re experiencing.

Clean up your act. If a specific update is listed as installed, but it’s still offered to you repeatedly, scan your system for spyware and viruses. Windows Secrets contributing editor Scott Spanbauer rated on June 26 several free antivirus packages you can use to do this.

Take the Safe Mode route. If an update doesn’t install properly in normal mode, try uninstalling it and then reinstalling it in Windows’ Safe Mode.

Step 1. To uninstall an update, press Win+R to open the Run box (in Vista, simply press the Windows key), type appwiz.cpl, and press Enter. In XP, check Show updates at the top of the box and scroll to Windows XP – Software Updates. In Vista, click View installed updates on the left.

Make a note of the problematic update’s KB number, click Remove (in XP) or Uninstall (in Vista), and follow the prompts on the screen.

Step 2. Browse to Microsoft’s Download Center and enter the update’s KB number in the Search box. Once you’ve found the update, download it to your desktop.

Step 3. Log into Windows’ Safe Mode by rebooting your system and pressing F8 until you see a menu of startup options. Use the arrow keys to select Safe Mode and press Enter.

Once you’re in Safe Mode, double-click the update on the desktop to install it.

Windows Update isn’t the most transparent or easy-to-use tool, but at least it’s built into Windows and can be made as automatic or as manual as you choose. Of course, you can always jettison Microsoft’s updater in favor of one of the refreshers I reviewed on Oct. 4, 2007.

If you’re having problems with Windows Update that aren’t described above, read MS Knowledge Base article 906602 for official troubleshooting tips.

And, until Microsoft or a third party comes up with something better, keep reading Windows Secrets to determine which patches you need and which you can hold off on.

Readers receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice for sending tips we print. Send us your tips 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 Here’s How section of that magazine.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-08-14: