Some patches are vital; others are a waste of time. Update your PC wisely and stay secure with PC Advisor.

Beyond having security software installed, the best way to keep malware off your PC is to maintain a fully patched Windows system. The same applies to apps that don't come from Microsoft.

However, simply accepting the default update settings can often leave your PC hobbled by bad drivers, software glitches or unwelcome new features such as Windows Genuine Advantage. It's also important to note that updates for various programs are handled differently. Here's our guide to smart updating.

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Windows 1: auto updates

Microsoft issues security updates for Windows, Office and Internet Explorer on the second Tuesday of each month, known as ‘Patch Tuesday'. The firm will occasionally issue emergency out-of-cycle patches too. The best way to receive these is to set your Windows PC to download and install them automatically upon release.

First, check the current status of Automatic Updates. Click Start, Control Panel. In Classic view, click Automatic Updates or System, Automatic Updates. In Category view, click Performance and Maintenance, System, Automatic Updates.

Windows 2: custom auto updates

If you don't want Windows Updates to install automatically, select the second Automatic Update option offered. This will download updates but install them at a time to suit.

This choice results in a yellow shield bearing an exclamation mark appearing in the system tray whenever your PC downloads a new update. The icon will remain there until you take action.

The updates will sit on your PC until you click the yellow shield icon or until the next time you reboot your PC. A dialog box will then ask you to choose an Express or a Custom install. The Express option installs the updates exactly as Microsoft provides them, while the Custom option enables you to pick and choose elements to install (a good choice when you want to avoid a problematic new service pack, for example).

Another option is to have Windows notify you when new patches are available, but not download those updates. In this case you'll see a listing for each available patch, along with its title and Knowledgebase article number, enabling you to find additional information on Microsoft's website.

You can deselect any update you don't want to download and install. Microsoft will suggest these bypassed patches again the next time it has an update or when you check for one yourself.

A final option is simply to turn off Automatic Updates. Doing so puts the burden of obtaining crucial security updates entirely on you; this option is appropriate only for the most disciplined users.

Windows 3: manual updates

Microsoft maintains two sites where you can find the latest patches if you choose to update manually. The first site, Microsoft Update (, covers Windows, Office and Internet Explorer (IE). When viewed in IE, the website takes inventory of your system via an ActiveX component. It then displays the recommended updates and invites you to choose an Express or Custom install.

To use this site with Firefox you need a browser add-on that lets you open a session of IE. Get IE Tab from

If you don't want to open IE, or if you use a different browser, go to the Microsoft Download Center instead. Click Download Categories in the top toolbar, then select Windows Security & Updates from the drop-down menu.

Many of the updates will not be specific to your machine but, provided you know what you're looking for, you should be able to find it in the list.

NEXT PAGE: dealing with troublesome updates >>

Some patches are vital; others are a waste of time. Update your PC wisely and stay secure with PC Advisor.

Dealing with troublesome updates

If you learn that a new service pack is available for Vista, say, but worry that your current programs might not work with it, you have some options. Start by changing Windows Automatic Updates to specify either downloading without installing or notifying only. At the prompt for an installation method, choose Custom, untick the service pack or patch you wish to delay or avoid, and install the rest of the batch. You may be prompted from time to time to download and install the remaining update, but you can decline.

If an installed update subsequently causes problems, you can take steps to reverse the damage. If you have Windows System Restore turned on (Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools), you can return to a point before the patch was installed (but doing so may also undo any other recent installations).

An easier choice is to uninstall the patch. Go to Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs. Make sure the box at the top is ticked - the resulting list of installed apps will include Microsoft updates. As you scroll down the list, you'll see a large block of Windows Updates, identified by update number and date. Select the update with the highest number (or the most recent date) and uninstall it.

Windows will try to reinstall the missing patch the next time it has a chance to do so, particularly if Automatic Updates is turned on. To prevent that, change your settings so you're only notified of updates from now on, or they're downloaded but not installed.

There are some updates that present problems no matter how carefully you deal with them. Service Pack 1 for .NET Framework 1.1 simply will not install correctly for some people, for instance.

In this case, Microsoft suggests that removing a particular Registry key should make the service pack install correctly. Unfortunately, finding the information for troubleshooting individual updates can sometimes be tricky. Start by typing the exact error message into a search engine; the results page should include at least one Microsoft Knowledgebase support article.

In other instances you may simply want a newer version of, say, IE. Visit Microsoft Update, the Microsoft Download Center or the IE site.

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Third-party apps

Your OS isn't the only software that you need to keep patched. As hackers have begun targeting common desktop applications, vendors (of multimedia apps, in particular) have become better at pushing out their security patches. Here's how to update some of the most popular.

Firefox: Mozilla silently and automatically downloads its browser security updates in the background; when you next launch the browser, Firefox notifies you, waits for your go-ahead, then performs the installation.

If you think something hasn't been installed, click Help, Check for Updates. Note that full-version updates (an upgrade from Firefox 2.0 to Firefox 3.0, for example) will still take a clean installation from Mozilla.

iTunes and QuickTime: Whenever you launch an Apple application within Windows, Apple does a brief check and then notifies you of the latest release for iTunes or QuickTime (if you aren't already running it).

You can also request an update by clicking Help, Check for Updates. Once in a while, Apple will push out a notification of a security update for iTunes, QuickTime or both. When it does, you'll see a dialog box that explains what the update includes.

Apple sometimes bundles other offerings, such as Safari and Bonjour for Windows, with those updates - regardless of whether you have or want them. If you aren't interested, make sure you deselect them before installing the update.

Flash and Adobe Reader: Adobe pushes out security updates as they are released. You can request an update check by clicking Help, Check for Updates. In general you can expect legitimate requests from Adobe for permission to install new updates to appear shortly after you've booted into Windows.

Java: Sun recently ran foul of security researchers, who discovered that older versions of Java remained on the Windows machine on which the researchers had installed newer, more secure versions. With JRE6 Update 10.0, Sun now removes older versions of Java from a PC, but it doesn't remove any pre-Update 10.0 versions; you'll have to uninstall those yourself.

Don't worry if your PC is Java-less. Not all users have it installed on their desktop.