Here’s a conglomeration of a variety of questions and problem reports I’ve received over the years:
Microsoft releases an update, folks see the update arrive automatically via the Windows Update process, and just as automatically, something fails. For a small percentage of computer users, Windows Update has a reputation for occasionally causing previously working features and functionality to fail. In the worse case, a bad update can even cause a machine to fail to boot.
I absolutely sympathize if that makes you very skittish about using Windows Update, or relying on Microsoft for help, ever again.
There are many, many reasons Windows Update might fail.
One of the most common is malware on your machine. Rootkits, specifically, can be particularly nasty, and have been implicated in at least one fairly widespread Windows Update failure. To be clear, the update itself was fine and worked – as long as your machine was malware free.
So making as sure as possible to be malware-free is where I always start.
After that, things are a little more haphazard.
Contrary to the opinion of those who’ve been burned by an update, Microsoft does thoroughly test each update before it’s released. The problem is that it’s impossible to test every possible machine configuration. Updates that should work anywhere can encounter problems encountering unexpected combinations of software, settings, or hardware. It’s impossible to test for, and just as impossible to predict whether it’ll happen to you.
By and large, Windows Update is reliable and robust, but if you’re in the minority of people who have experienced an issue, you probably don’t feel that way.
Avoiding Windows Update
I’m certainly not going to say that it’s foolish to avoid Windows Update once you’ve had a bad experience. It’s a natural reaction to what can be a very serious and time-consuming situation.
But I will definitely say that avoiding updates long term is ill-advised.
The problem is that keeping your system up to date is critical to keeping it safe from malware. You want the security updates that are regularly and routinely made available via Windows Update.
You simply must keep your system up to date.
Cleaning up and continuing to use Windows Update
If you find yourself in a position where you know for a fact that a Windows Update update caused problems on your machine, the simplest way to recover is to restore the machine to a full-system backup image taken prior to receiving the update.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same advice for removing malware: restore to a backup image taken prior to the malware’s arrival. The irony is not lost.
If you don’t have a full-system backup image, things get significantly more difficult.
In the worst case, you may find yourself needing to back up your data, reformat your hard drive, reinstall everything cleanly from scratch, and get completely up to date before continuing. The good news is that this often clears up whatever conflict or problem might have been causing Windows Update to fail in the first place.
If that’s not in the cards for you, you may be faced with researching the specific failure you’re experiencing, and seeing if others have determined ways to resolve or work around the problem.
When the problem is due to an error on Microsoft’s part, once you’re in a stable state, you might want to delay updates by a week or two (if your version of Windows allows you that level of control). Usually, updates that cause widespread failures are themselves quickly updated and fixed.
My advice is simply this:
First, begin backing up regularly. Start today. Daily system image backups are best, so that you can restore your machine to a pre-problem state, regardless of whether that problem is a bad update, malware, or something else entirely.
Second, keep Windows Updates turned on. If your version of Windows supports it, you can elect to take them manually and/or at a time of your choosing, but be religious about it. Take the updates that are offered. (It’s worth noting that if an update is offered for your machine, it applies to your machine. Updates that don’t apply are simply not listed.)
To be clear, I do believe that Microsoft needs to do a better job of making Windows Update more robust and trustworthy, particularly now, since much of its operation in Windows 10 is not optional. It doesn’t take many failures for its reputation to continue to be tarnished, and as a result, users take ill-advised measures that put them at risk in other ways.