Surviving Automatic Updates in Windows

Windows XP has the ability to automatically download and apply security fixes, updates, and new drivers from the Microsoft. While this may sound like a great feature, not everyone was excited at first. When this capability was announced, IT professionals worldwide let out a collective groan, imagining entire networks breaking overnight as flawed patches are automatically applied. Fortunately things are not that bad.

To enable Automatic Updates in Windows XP open the Performance and Maintenance category in your Control Panel, then click the System icon. There, Automatic Updates warrants its own tab. Note that to modify these settings you must be logged on to your computer as an administrator. In this section you can set Windows to ask you before
doing anything, download updates automatically, and even automatically install updates. Should you ever decline to install an update, a button allows installation at a later time.

Overall Microsoft does a decent job at its updates, however there are a few cases where the updates have introduced other problems. In particular, one (to fix problem number Q317277) has a strong tendency to cause hard lockups, in our experience. Worse, we have encountered at least two PCs that refused to boot following an attempt to download Windows XP Service Pack 1. While one can prevent users from downloading some updates,
unfortunately they are unable to block "critical" updates and drivers.

Users should strongly consider installing critical updates and security patches. Windows XP updates should be installed only if applicable, and driver updates should generally be avoided unless the user is fixing a specific driver problem.

November 2002

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