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Keeping Windows Secure and Updated using Windows Update

written by: Jeffrey Davis•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 4/12/2010

One of the most common ways to ensure that your Windows installation is kept as secure as possible is to perform regular software updates to apply the latest patches and fixes available using the Windows Update utility. Here I provide a quick guide to using this important system tool.

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    Introduction

    As with any piece of software, the Windows operating system is only as secure as the code and components enabled and installed on the system. All too often, the most common way to be on the receiving end of a virus outbreak or external attack from a devious source such as a botnet or a tainted file or webpage is to have outdated software components, including those in Windows itself. Therefore, it is advisable to regularly update and patch the components of the operating system as well as those of installed software packages (including Office, Internet Explorer, hardware drivers and various communications and media management tools).

    The central part of Windows that manages these tasks is known as Windows Update. Regularly using Windows Update to keep your Windows installation and various installed software packages synchronized with the latest security and feature bits and improvements can go a long way for minimizing the risk of attack from outside threats.

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    Accessing Windows Update

    The easiest way to access Windows Update is through the Start menu. In Windows XP, the link to Windows Update appears at the top of the first column of program links in the All Programs flyout. (It may also appear as Microsoft Update if you enabled updates for other installed Microsoft software products, but I will have a bit more on that particular option later in this article.) If you're on Windows 7 or Vista, you access Windows Update from Control Panel. Below are the methods of accessing and using Windows Update for each of the three current Windows versions in common use:

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    For Windows XP users:

    1. Click the Start Button.

    2. Point to All Programs.

    3. Click Windows Update. Note: If updates for other Microsoft Products are enabled, this item may appear as Microsoft Update. Windows will load a special webpage that will assist in the updating process. The version check will occur first to make sure you have the latest available components for the update tool; after which you will be prompted to choose your update type.

    4. If you are only installing high-priority updates, choose the Express option. If you also wish to install driver updates and program feature additions, choose the Custom option. Windows will check for available updates and report with the results. If you selected the express option, skip to step 6. Note: if you haven't yet installed the Genuine Advantage product key validator (you know, to ensure you're legitimately using Windows) you will be prompted with an additional component installation step. If so, install the components and repeat this step upon completion.

    5. If you chose the custom option, you will be presented with a screen containing choices for installing additional updates. Select each update category (High Priority, Software and/or Hardware -- the latter two have the word optional appended in parenthesis) and select the updates you wish to install. (You can also choose updates by installed Microsoft products if using Microsoft Update.) When you're done, click Review and install updates.

    6. Click Install updates to begin the installation process. You may be asked to accept some user agreements; if so, read the information and respond accordingly.

    7. After updates are installed, you may be asked to restart the computer. If so, click Restart now.

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    For Windows Vista Users

    1. Click the Start Orb.

    2. Click Control Panel.

    3. Under Security, click Check for Updates. The screen should display the number of updates available. Note: If there are no important updates available, Windows will notify you of this with a green shield symbol. If a yellow or red shield appears with an install updates button, there are updates that need urgent attention, or the last update attempt has failed.

    Continued updating instructions and configuring automated installations on next page...

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    Keeping Windows Secure and Updated using Windows Update - Automating Important UpdatesIn addition to using Windows Update on an interactive basis, you can also schedule a time to automatically install the most important updates available as they arrive. Here I continue my Windows Update discussion to include details on this important procedure.
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    For Windows Vista Users: (continued)

    4. If you only intend to install high priority updates and there is a green shield, you don't need to do anything and can skip the rest of this portion of the article. If you wish to install driver updates and/or additional software features, click the text that says x optional update(s) available (where x is the number of such updates); otherwise skip to step 7.

    5. Check off all the optional updates you wish to install, then click OK.

    6. Click Install Updates to begin the installation process. You may be asked to accept some user agreements; if so, read the information and respond accordingly.

    7. After updates are installed, you may be asked to restart the computer. If so, click Restart now.

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    For Windows 7 Users

    1. Click the Start Orb.

    2. Click Control Panel.

    3. Click System and Security.

    4. Under Windows Update, click Check for Updates. The screen should display the number of updates available.

    5. If there are no important updates available, Windows will notify you of this with a green shield symbol. If a yellow or red shield appears with an install updates button, there are updates that need urgent attention, or the last update attempt has failed.

    6. If you only intend to install high priority updates and there is a green shield, you don't need to do anything and can skip the rest of this portion of the article. If you wish to install driver updates and/or additional software features, click the text that says x optional update(s) available (where x is the number of such updates); otherwise skip to step 7.

    7. Check off all the optional updates you wish to install, then click OK.

    8. Click Install Updates to begin the installation process. You may be asked to accept some user agreements; if so, read the information and respond accordingly.

    9. After updates are installed, you may be asked to restart the computer. If so, click Restart now.

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    Setting an Automatic Update Schedule

    While using the Windows Update utility allows you to install updates at your convenience, it is much easier to have Windows install important updates on its own terms, so that you don't have to be at the computer when these updates become available. In general, updates for most Windows components and other Microsoft products come at least once a month (on the second Tuesday cycle, to be exact) but may arrive sooner if more urgent installation is necessary. By enabling automatic scheduling of system updates, you can help ensure that your system is running these updated components as quickly as they arrive. This is in no way all-inclusive; you still need to purchase upgrade packages for newer software versions where necessary (such as with Office, as well as Windows itself). Other software packages and version upgrades (including Internet Explorer and the Windows Live Essentials package) can be upgraded to new versions without uprooting your entire system or document editing tools. Using the following methods, you can easily and quickly enable automated update scheduling:

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    For Windows XP users:

    1. Click the Start Button.

    2. Click Control Panel.

    3. Click Performance and Maintenance. (If using Classic View in Control Panel, skip this step.)

    4. Click System.

    5. Click the Automatic Updates tab.

    6. Choose the Automatic (Recommended) option.

    7. Choose a day to perform the updates (I recommend using the Every Day option so that updates are installed as they become available, but you can also choose a specific day of the week if desired, such as for a computer like a laptop or netbook that's only connected at certain times). Also be sure to input the time you want the updates to occur on the selected day (the default is usually 3:00AM).

    8. Click OK, and then close the control panel.

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    For Windows Vista users:

    1. Perform steps 1 to 3 in the Windows Vista portion of the Using Windows Update section above.

    2. Click Change settings on the left side of the Windows Update tool.

    3. Under Important updates, select Install updates automatically (recommended) in the first dropdown selector.

    Continued automation setup instructions and additional Windows Update usage information on next page...

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    Keeping Windows Secure and Updated using Windows Update - Allowing the installation of updates for other Microsoft productsThe last major step you should perform when configuring Windows Update is to allow the installation of updates for other Microsoft products on a regular basis. Here I conclude my discussion on the Windows Update tool to detail the steps to do this, and provide a few additional reasons for regularly using Windows Update.
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    For Windows Vista Users: (continued)

    4. Under the first selector, click the left dropdown to choose the day to install updates. (I recommend using the Every Day option so that updates are installed as they become available, but you can also choose a specific day of the week if desired, such as for a computer like a laptop or netbook that's only connected at certain times).

    5. Use the same instructions from the previous step on the right dropdown to pick an installation time (the default is usually 3:00AM). Unlike with XP, you can only schedule by the hour (not in between hours).

    6. Under recommended updates, check the box to receive recommended updates with the important stuff. (I seriously recommend you do this.)

    7. Click OK, and then close Windows Update. Be sure to confirm in the UAC prompt.

    Note that I am not providing a section for Windows 7 users in relation to this portion of the article. With the exception of clicking the System and Security link on the main page of the control panel, the procedure is the same as with Vista. Also, in both Vista and Windows 7 you can allow users other than the system administrator to install updates; this is entirely optional, and should be carefully evaluated by whoever manages the computer based on the policies of where the computer is normally used.

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    Enabling Updates for Installed Microsoft Software

    In addition to scheduling updates, another highly-recommended step for keeping your system updated is to allow Windows to install product updates for installed Microsoft products. This will ensure that your installations of Microsoft Office, Windows Live Essentials and other Microsoft software packages are updated with the most current software bits available to you based on the versions of these programs that are currently installed.

    Windows XP users can enable this option from the Windows Update website by selecting the option to upgrade to Microsoft Update if they haven't already done so; however, this is a one-way upgrade and cannot be rolled back (but then again, you probably don't need to). Vista and Windows 7 users can turn this off and on at their own convenience using the following procedure:

    1. Perform the first two steps used when you enabled automatic updates as described above.
    2. Under Microsoft Update, check the box if you want to get important updates for installed Microsoft software packages, as well as to receive installation options for adding optional Microsoft software packages related to your installed software.
    3. If desired, you can also check the box under Software notifications to receive automatic notifications of new versions of the Microsoft software products that you are currently using.
    4. Once you have made your selections, click OK, and then close Windows Update. Be sure to confirm in the UAC prompt.
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    Other Reasons to use Windows Update

    Security updates and driver upgrades are not the only reason to use Windows Update on a regular basis. By using Windows Update, it is also possible to install new service packs, updates to free Microsoft software packages (such as Internet Explorer and Windows Live Essentials), and to add additional features and tools for use with already-installed Microsoft Products (such as the .NET Framework and Microsoft Office file management tools).

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    Conclusion

    In conclusion, the use and configuration of Windows Update is an important part of your approach to combating security issues and should not be overlooked. By using this indispensable tool, you can ensure that your Windows installation and that of other Microsoft products is not only loaded with the latest available security fixes, but also has the most recent feature additions and other installed components available at the time of the most recent update. Frequent use of Windows Update, therefore, ensures that you have the most current bits for all of your installed Microsoft programs, and that essential portions of Windows itself are updated to handle virtually anything that gets thrown at your computer system, regardless of the source.

    If this article has been helpful in getting you accustomed to the use of Windows Update, then why not go deeper into the use of other types of security tools in Windows? If such is the case, then be sure to check out some of the other Bright Hub articles that deal with keeping your Windows installation safe and secure.