Keeping your computer — including its operating system and all the installed third-party software — up to date is extremely important, but it needn't be a hassle or inconvenience. Here's a look at three tools you can use regularly to keep your system current.
Photo by junkDzine.
The Windows operating system and all the software we use on it are constantly evolving, due in part both to the efforts of programmers across the globe making their software better and counteracting the efforts of hackers trying to exploit software. Keeping on top of updates, big and small, helps keep your computer more secure.
The following guide will help you set up your computer to automatically update itself when possible, and keep your software current and secure. We'll be highlighting three tools here to help remove the hassle of updating from your shoulders and automate it to keep it off your mind.
The Windows operating system is a big juicy target for malware makers. If you're going to try and hack the planet and build the biggest bot net ever, you're not going to aim for obscure operating systems — you're going to try and exploit Windows, a readily available and ripe target. Not keeping Windows updated is asking for trouble. Luckily Windows comes with a pretty decent — albeit sometimes annoying — update tool built in: Windows Update. (Note: There's a good chance you're already at least somewhat familiar with Windows Update; if you are, and you're not interested in hearing about the finer points of using it to keep your Windows OS up to date, skip down to the next section on keeping your installed third-party apps updated.)
It's worth noting that different versions of built-in updating software exist in Windows. Windows Update strictly updates the Windows operating system, while Microsoft Update includes both Windows updates and updates for Microsoft software like Office and Windows Live. The way the two terms are used, even in Windows itself, is sometimes confusing so we'll simply stick to using the name most familiar to people for the rest of the guide: Windows Update.
You want your Windows Update screen to look less like the one above — no updates for a long time! — and more like the one below:
Depending on which version of Windows you have, Windows Update looks slightly different. The screenshots for this article are of Windows Update as it appears in the Windows Action Center in Windows 7. You can visit the following links to check out specifics for different versions of windows: XP, Vista and Windows 7.
The important aspect, regardless of the version of Windows you're using, is automating the process. The screenshot below shows Windows 7 configured to download and install updates automatically. Click on it for a larger view.
For automated and effortless updating, you want to set Windows Update to "Install Updates Automatically", set a time that works best with your schedule, and set it to grab the recommended as well as critical updated by checking "Recommended Updates".
If you'd like to err on the side of caution — there have been a few times in Windows Update's history where updates have caused hiccups for people — you can always set your Windows Update to download but not install the files. This adds a small extra layer of work for you but it lets you sit on a major update for a few days to see if it plays nice with system in the real world. Setting your system to automatically download the updates but not install them gives you the ability to selectively choose which updates will be installed but the convenience of having them already on your machine waiting — see the screenshot below.
If you don't have Windows Update enabled now is the time to hit the start button and type "Windows Update" in the quick run box to turn it on. It's free, it keeps your PC secure, and with a few mouse clicks now it'll be automated forever.
Easily Update All of Your Installed Applications
Windows Update is great for keeping your OS and Microsoft software updated, but it doesn't cover all those third-party applications you've downloaded. Fortunately FileHippo, the enormous software repository, has a free application that checks your current applications against the FileHippo database for new releases. The tiny system tray app (which you can see in the screenshot below) automatically scans your system for installed software, then checks their versions against the latest available versions.
Once FileHippo completes its automatic scan of your system, it serves an alert detailing apps in need of updating. FileHippo, unfortunately, doesn't automatically download the updates for you, but it does make it incredibly simple to do so. Click on the update icon and it will take you to the FileHippo site. There you can grab all the application updates you need.
You won't find many settings in the FileHippo settings menu. You can customise what FileHippo searches for and what it will exclude if, for example, you have a piece of software you aren't going to update because it breaks something critical in your work flow or you just prefer an older version of the app. Other than that, the only other significant option is to toggle whether or not FileHippo start with Windows — and there's no point in turning that off, since the whole reason you downloaded the lightweight application was so you'd get those application update alerts!
FileHippo is free, less than 200k to download, and a trivial hit to your system resources. It's a great tool for keeping on top of third-party updates. On a related note, the FileHippo website is also a great resource if you ever find yourself in need of an old version of an application. The version history for ICQ, for example, goes back 5 years.
Take a Deeper Look at Updates and Security
Enabling Windows Update and tacking on FileHippo provides excellent update coverage with a strong emphasis on automation and ease of use. If you're interested in digging into update information and learning more about the patches you're downloading and tracking your patching history —people love metrics! — you'll want to check out Secunia PSI.
Unlike FileHippo, which merely tells you that a new version of a program is available, Secunia PSI ranks the importance of updates. A minor update to Pidgin isn't a huge priority, for example, but a major update to Internet Explorer, Java or other equally as exploitable applications ranks much higher. When you run a scan with Secunia it tells you what needs to be updated, what updates have occurred with the applications since you last updated, and whether or not the update is critical. Secunia also tells you how many of your programs are insecure due to lack of patching or if they have reached their end-of-life and will have no further updates. In addition it also tracks your patch history over time and charts out your update cycle.
If you switch on the advanced mode of Secunia — and why wouldn't you, you've already gone out of your way to download an application that promises an in depth look at patching and security vulnerabilities — you can dig even deeper into critical updates. The screenshot below shows a portion of the "Secure Browsing" tab found in the advanced interface.
Secunia PSI provides a broader view than the mere file updating provided by FileHippo, but don't feel you need to go for the more advanced and detailed application to stay current. You can easily run the two side by side, only using Secunia PSI when you're curious and want to take a peek into the security side of updating. If you're less interested in the security implications of your software updates, you can skip Secunia all together.
Keeping Windows and the accompanying third-party software up to date is one of those simple to-dos that yields large benefits for little effort, but it's still something that most people tend to outright neglect. Turn on automatic updating in Windows Update, grab a copy of FileHippo or Secunia PSI, and keep your computer patched and running the latest and greatest software.
Have a tip, trick, or must-have application for updating your computer or keeping it secure? Let's hear about it in the comments.