The Basics, Part 2: What are Software Updates

Computers are just like any other complicated mechanical or electronic device: they require periodic maintenance. A car, for example, should have its oil changed every three months or three thousand miles to keep the engine running smooth and healthy. But unlike a car which does one job and does it well, your computer can learn new tricks by running new software. Not only does your computer require physical maintenance, but every software package you install requires a little “virtual maintenance” of its own.

Most users will buy a computer, load it with their favorite software and forget about it. Things might be just fine for a while, but eventually your once speedy machine will start to drag, you’ll experience lag and crashes that prevent you from getting your work done, and viruses, spyware, and other digital nastiness might even creep into your system. You’ll eventually have to pay a technician to fix the problem, or will treat your computer as a disposable commodity and simply buy a new one. One of the critical tricks that computer technicians have up their sleeve are software updates, and when I tell you how easy they are, you’ll kick yourself for wasting your money.

(On a side note: when you do dispose of computer hardware, please do so responsibly. Donate it, give it away, recycle it, or send it to a federal prison to be dismantled and repurposed. Just please don’t dump it in a landfill.)

What Are Software Updates?

In theory computers are simple machines. With a few exceptions they only know how to follow a couple of instructions, but clever programmers understand how to put these instructions together to make your computer do something useful. A software program is simply a set of instructions that tells your computer how to do something. But since software is written by humans, these instructions will often contain errors. Software updates, or patches, modify your software to fix these errors. These patches can fix a variety of problems including:

  • Crashes causing you to lose unsaved information
  • The “blue screen of death
  • Memory leaks: a situation in which a program fails to play nice with the rest of your software and sucks up all of your computer’s available memory until none is left to run other software
  • Security holes: Improperly written software can leave your computer exposed to viruses, spyware, and hackers
  • Performance: though a program might run without exhibiting any of the errors described above, it might be slow and inefficient. Later, after the software is already installed on your computer, the authors of the software may find a better way to write their software that utilizes computer resources more efficiently

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What Software Needs Updated?

This is an easy answer: all of it. Luckily most conscientious software vendors make it easy to update their programs. Microsoft provides two services, called Windows Update and Microsoft Update which will automatically download and install any updates required to bring your operating system and other Microsoft software up to date. Better still, you can easily set your computer up to automatically download and install Microsoft updates, relieving you of a bit of tedious work.

Other popular software package will automatically notify you when a newer version of the software is available. This includes Adobe Acrobat, Winzip, and Firefox. If your software doesn’t automatically notify you of updates, it will often provide an option in it’s Help menu labelled “Check for Updates” or something similar, which allows you to manually find and install newer versions of the program.

Another piece of software needs updated that even many support professionals often neglect: your system’s BIOS, or Basic Input/Output System. If you don’t know what that means, that’s okay. When you turn on your computer, before it ever starts loading Windows you’ll probably see a screen displaying some information about your hardware or possibly the manufacturer’s logo. This is the system BIOS. It is a small program that lives on a chip inside your computer and is responsible for controlling your computer’s hardware. Every action performed by every other piece of software on your PC is dependant on the BIOS, so keeping it current is critical. Unfortunately BIOS updates are not always a simple task. It usually involves manually checking the website of your computer’s manufacturer for an updated BIOS file, creating a bootable floppy disk containing the file, and rebooting to the floppy disk. Updating your BIOS can be a dangerous procedure and, if done incorrectly can permanently damage your computer. I’ll discuss BIOS update procedures in another post, but for now if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t try it.

Conclusion

All software needs updates. This includes optional utility programs such as web browsers and audio players, office software, your Windows operating system, and even the system BIOS which is responsible for managing the guts of your machine. Updates are critical to keep your computer running smooth, fast, and protected from malicious programs and hackers. Not only is keeping your software updated incredibly simple, it’s also free and arguably the best way to make sure you get as much life out of your computer as possible.

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