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Windows 10 update
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How can I get control of Windows Update?

With Windows 10, Microsoft introduced the concept of automatic updates.  Prior to Windows 10 you had the choice of how updates were applied.

  1. Automatically
  2. Notify if there is a new update but leave it for the user to apply manually.
  3. Don't check for updates

This gave Microsoft support problems as everyone had different versions of patches applied.  They got tired of sorting out user problems for which they had already released a patch, so they simply removed options 2 and 3.

In theory this means that everyone is running with the same patch levels which, again in theory, is a good thing.  In practice it doesn't work because there are ways round this and it only annoys the user because Microsoft has implemented it so badly.

During the patch process many modules are replaced but some of these modules may be in use (resident parts of the kernel operating system loaded into memory).  To get round this, the new version of a module is installed with a different name and a rename task is scheduled to run during the boot process.  This renames the versions, deletes itself and restarts the boot process.  So the update normally requires a reboot to complete the process.  If the boot process was quick, as Microsoft likes to pretend, this wouldn't matter, but on some PCs the boot process can take 5 minutes or more.  Dowloading updates is heavily reliant on fast Internet access, which at peak times can introduce further delays.

Microsoft have made things worse by the system not properly indicating what is happening.  At some stages you get messages that a process is happening and that you should wait, but at other times you get plain screens, blank screens or nothing at all, the PC just freezes for minutes at a time.  It is all very well putting a message on the screen "Update in progress. Wait. Do not switch off", but what are you supposed to do if that message has been sitting on the screen for two hours with nothing happening.  Sometimes you can tell from a flashing LED that something is going on, but it might be stuck in a loop.  What is needed is a box listing the current process and a progress bar for ALL stages of the update.

It is very annoying when you need to use your PC for something urgent and when you switch on you find it is running like a dog and it takes 40 minutes and several boots before you can get to use YOUR OWN COMPUTER.

Because Windows update is a lengthy process in terms of downloading the new modules, Microsoft do the downloading of the update in the background.  The idea being that it uses spare capacity and does not impact the user, who can continue working as normal while the download completes.  In practice the computer slows to a crawl and sometimes even hangs for minutes at a time, with no indication of why.  One soon learns to recognise the symptoms that an update is being downloaded in the background.  At this stage it is better to stop using the computer and find something else to do and just let it get on with it.  The problem is that downloading is an intensive process which adds extra requests to the Internet connection and disk server queues.  The system can also get interlocks between applications that take time to resolve.  If you have an urgent need to use your computer on Patch Tuesday and find that instead of booting, the PC is busy downloading patches you can get control back by turning off your Internet connection (Airplane mode, unplug the LAN, turn off the router). If you need the Internet yourself you can restore connection once the boot has completed.

Another problem is that Microsoft are prone to releasing patches with bugs in, even on occasions resulting in a system that won't boot.  Windows Secrets regularly advise to hold off on updates until patches are known to be safe to apply.  They use a DEFCOM system to indicate whether it is safe to apply patches or not.  When a new major release is due, but some might chose all patches, it is advisable to pause updates on the Monday before Patch Tuesday.  Windows Secrets will be indicating DEFCON=2.  To pause updates see below.  At the end of the week you can check back with Windows Secrets to find out what problems have been discovered.  Follow their advice as to whether to resume updates or delay them further.

Microsoft do test their patches on a range of machines and if there are problems with particular hardware will hold off roll out for that hardware.  This sometimes applies to their own machines which hardly inspires confidence.

So how can you regain control of your system? It does depend on your edition of Windows 10.  The easiest is with the Group Policy editor but this is not available on Windows home so on that edition your options are more limited.

To temporarily disable automatic updates on Windows 10 Home

Use these steps:

  • Open Settings.
  • Click on Update & Security.
  • Click on Windows Update.
  • Click the Advanced options button.
  • Under the "Pause updates" sections, use the Pause until drop-down menu, and select how long to disable automatic updates.

The exact menu options depend on your version of Windows 10.  Microsoft are always changing things.  Later updates of Windows have an option "pause for seven days" without a choice of time period.

This web page has a guide to control the update process.  The web site is annoying in that it has adverts popping up all over the place which need shutting down or scrolling out of the way.  If you have an ad-blocker this might help.

9th June 2020

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