How to handle Windows 10 updates

Microsoft's new updating procedure can be confusing -- and annoying. Here's exactly what happens, and a few strategies for getting around it.

Confused about how updates work in Windows 10? Join the club. In this latest version of its operating system, Microsoft has transformed what was once a straightforward procedure into a seemingly complicated process that varies according to whether you have Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro. As a result, there have been lots of misperceptions about how Windows 10 Update works, and how to best use it.

Unlike previous versions of Windows, Windows 10 doesn't give you the option to review pending updates and choose not to install them (although, as you'll see later on in this piece, there are a few exceptions to that). Instead, the updates automatically install on a schedule of Microsoft's choosing. When updates are available, Windows 10 automatically downloads them, schedules a time to restart your PC, and then installs the update on that schedule.

windows update basic

Windows 10 automatically downloads updates and schedules a time to restart your PC and install them.

We're here to help. We've delved deep into Windows 10 Update and come up with answers to users' most pressing questions: Whether you have to accept all updates, whether you can uninstall existing updates and how to reduce the bandwidth some updates use. We've also included some hidden extras, like how to stop all updates if you want.

Read on for details.

The difference between an update and an upgrade

Is a Windows update the same thing as a Windows upgrade? The two words sound pretty much identical, but in the Windows 10 world there's a difference.

In Microsoft terminology, updates fix security issues, squash bugs and make relatively significant changes to Windows, typically under the hood. They're delivered on Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of every month, and then on an as-needed basis.

Upgrades, on the other hand, "install the latest new features, experiences and capabilities" of Windows 10, according to Microsoft. Typically, there are at most two to three upgrades a year. The first upgrade to Windows 10 was in November 2015.

Even though Microsoft differentiates between updates and upgrades, the company doesn't always follow its own naming convention when describing them to the public. For example, when Terry Myerson, Microsoft's executive vice president for the Windows and Devices Group, blogged about the November Windows 10 upgrade, he headlined it, "First major update for Windows 10 available today."

Windows 10 updates and how to defer them

While it may sound at first like Microsoft has completely taken control of the update process, you do have some options. To see whether any updates have been downloaded and scheduled to be installed, click the Start button and select Settings / Update & Security / Windows Update. You'll see any updates that have been downloaded and the time they're scheduled to install. If a restart is needed (which is not always the case), you can change the time by selecting "Select a restart time" and choosing a day and time. Or you can install the updates immediately by clicking "Restart Now."

That being said, there is a workaround to the must-always-update-immediately rule -- assuming you have Windows Pro. In that case, you can defer updates and have them installed later on rather than immediately.

To do it, click the Start button and select Settings / Update & Security / Windows Update / Advanced options and check the box next to "Defer upgrades." When you do that, updates won't automatically download and install -- at least not immediately. According to Microsoft, the updates will eventually automatically install after "several months," although it doesn't say how many months that means.

Keep in mind that you can't defer security updates. Those install right away whether you choose to defer updates or not.

defer update

You can defer updates for several months if you have Windows 10 Pro.

There's also a sneaky, little-known workaround that can prevent you from installing Windows updates entirely (except for important security updates). But you can't do it on a case-by-case basis -- you either install all updates or none at all. And you can only do it on PCs that are connected to a network via Wi-Fi -- if you've got an Ethernet connection it won't work.

To do it, you need to tell Windows 10 that you're on a metered connection -- in other words, that you're being charged by how much data you use. Click the Start button and select Settings / Network & Internet / Wi-Fi / Advanced options. On the screen that appears, go to the "Metered connection" setting and set the slider from Off to On.

When you do that, Windows will minimize the data you use, and one of the ways it does that is to stop automatically downloading Windows updates. Keep in mind, though, that if you connect to another Wi-Fi network you'll have to turn that setting on for that network as well. If you don't, updates will happen automatically.

If you're connected to a network via Ethernet, the "Metered connection" setting won't appear, so you can't use the technique.

And finally, Windows Pro users can use the enterprise-level Windows Update for Business (WUB) tool to control the timing of upgrade and update delivery.

View your update history and uninstall updates

Although Windows 10 won't allow you to pick and choose which updates to install, you can uninstall any updates that cause you problems.

To do it, first see what updates have been installed by clicking the Start button and selecting Settings / Update & Security / Windows Update / Advanced options / View your update history.

update history

Windows 10 lets you see a history of your Windows 10 updates.

For details about any update, click the link underneath it that reads, "Successfully installed on xx/xx/xxxx," where xx/xx/xxxx is the date. If the update has been downloaded but not installed yet, the link will read, "Requires a restart to finish installing." After you click either link, a screen appears with information about the update.

info about update

You can get information about any Windows 10 update installed on your PC.

To uninstall an update, click "Uninstall updates" at the top of the screen. On the screen that appears, click on the update you want to get rid of, then click Uninstall.

uninstall updates

You can uninstall a Windows 10 update that misbehaves.

If you want to make sure that Windows 10 won't reinstall the update, you can use a free Microsoft tool to essentially hide it from Windows Update. To do it, go to this page, scroll toward the bottom and click the "Download the 'Show or hide updates' troubleshooter package now." link. Install the download, click Next and follow the instructions for hiding the update you don't want reinstalled.

Getting into the fast lane with the Insider Program

Are you the kind of person who needs to be first in the technology know and wants the latest version of Windows before its general release? If so, you'll want to become part of Microsoft's Windows Insider Program. When you do that, you'll get the latest Windows updates before everyone else. Keep in mind, though, that when you do this, you're somewhat of a guinea pig, because Microsoft uses the program to find out bugs and problems with updates.

If it's something you want to do, head to the Windows Insider page and sign up. Then on your PC, click the Start button, select Settings / Update & Security / Windows Update / Advanced options, scroll down to the "Get Insider Preview builds" section and click Get Started.

You'll be warned that you'll be testing software that might not be fully tested. If you still want to go ahead, click Next.

After that comes an even scarier notice that warns you that "if you ever want to stop receiving Insider Preview builds you may need to remove everything from your PC and reinstall Windows." If you're still not scared, click Confirm. You'll then have to restart your PC.

After your PC restarts, click the Start button and select Settings / Update & Security / Windows Update / Advanced options. You'll see in the "Get Insider Preview builds" section that you'll now receive Insider Preview builds.

insider builds

If you want to be the first to try new features, you can arrange to receive Insider Preview builds.

You have a choice of receiving the Insider Preview builds as soon as they're released or after they've been tested a while (but before they're released to the general public). Microsoft calls these options the "fast ring" and "slow ring."

By default, when you sign up you're on the slow ring. If you want to move to the fast ring, move the slider (you'll see it under the sentence that indicates what your current option is) to the right. If at any point you want to return to the slow ring, move the slider to the left. And if you want to opt out of getting Insider Preview builds, click Stop Insider Preview builds. From the screen that appears, click "Stop receiving Insider Preview builds" and you'll stop getting them from now on. If you instead want to only stop getting them for a few days, click the drop-down list and choose either one, three or five days, then click Apply.

Use peer-to-peer networking to install updates

When it comes to updating Windows 10, Microsoft borrowed a technique from peer-to-peer networking apps like BitTorrent in order to help distribute updates more efficiently. If you want, you can tell Windows 10 that you want updates delivered from other PCs via peer-to-peer networking in addition to getting them from Microsoft servers.

Why would you want to do this? If you have multiple Windows 10 PCs on a network, you can save bandwidth, because the update can be delivered from Microsoft's servers to one PC on your network, and that PC can then deliver the update to the other Windows 10 PCs.

To turn this feature on, click the Start button and select Settings / Update & Security / Windows Update / Advanced options. Click on "Choose how updates are delivered" (about halfway down the page). On the screen that appears, move the slider to On, and then choose "PCs on my local network." If you choose "PCs on my local network, and PCs on the Internet," the PCs on your network will get updates from other PCs on the Internet -- but your PCs will also send updates to those other PCs as well, and so you could end up using additional bandwidth.

delivering updates

You can use peer-to-peer networking to deliver updates in Windows 10.

Stay tuned for more

We'll be covering all of Windows 10's upgrades in detail -- for example, our review of the November 2015 Windows 10 upgrade -- but not necessarily all updates. And if Microsoft makes any changes in its upgrade/update policy along the way, we'll include them in this article, so check back.

If you have questions about Windows 10 updates, let us know in the comments, and we'll do our best to include that in future coverage as well.

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