Configuring Windows Automatic Updates

In a previous post I talked about the importance of keeping your software current by installing patches and updates. Microsoft, in an effort to make this process as painless as possible, has made updating an integrated part of their operating systems. This article will explain how to turn on automatic updating in Windows XP and Vista and discuss best practices about it’s configuration.

Finding the Automatic Updates Configuration (XP)

To locate the Automatic Updates configuration in Windows XP, right-click on My Computer and select the Properties option. Depending on your desktop settings you may find My Computer directly on your desktop, or it may be located under your start menu. The image provided shows where My Computer is located on my own PC.

After you have selected the Properties option, a window will appear called System Properties. This window is the home of several tabs which provide various information and settings for your computer, but the one we’re immediately interested in is called Automatic Updates (circled in the image provided). Click this tab to reveal the Automatic Updates Configuration.

Configuring Automatic Updates

The Automatic Updates configuration four primary options which specify how you want it to behave. The first option, Automatic, will automatically download Microsoft updates while your computer is connected to the Internet and install them without notification. The second option, “download updates for me, but let me choose when to install them” does just what it says: it will automatically download software updates while you have an open Internet connection, then notifies you via a flashing message on your Windows status bar that updates are ready to install. The third option will simply notify you that downloads are available, but never download or install them without your consent. The third option disables Automatic Updates entirely. Which option is right for you?

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Unfortunately many users overestimate their level of motivation when deciding how to configure Automatic Updates. They will choose one of the last three options under the assumption that they will visit the Windows Update site manually and install all the updates they need at once, or that they will respond to the Windows Update notifications that pop up from their status bar and act on them accordingly. This doesn’t always happen, and thus well-meaning users leave their computers unpatched.

I recommend choosing the Automatic setting because it’s one less problem you have to worry about. You can set it and forget it. Occasionally the Automatic Updates program will ask to reboot your computer, but this is significantly less annoying the nagging which the other three options present. In my experience Automatic Update asks to reboot less than once a week.

Automatic Update also allows you to specify what day and time update installations should occur. When choosing this setting make sure you select a day and time when your computer is guaranteed to be turned on but idle (for example, at night if you’re a daytime sort of person). This will ensure that Windows doesn’t start installing updates while you’re trying to play a game or get work done.