They May Seem Mundane, but System Updates Are Important

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Every now and then, that little icon appears in the system tray. And our reaction is predictable: "Oh, there's an update for my computer. Ugh. Do I have to? It's going to slow me down. I don't have time to reboot. Just leave me alone!"

Indeed, updating one's operating system seems like the PC equivalent of checking your engine's oil. But just like a little periodic car maintenance is a minor interruption that could improve the lifespan of your car, these computer updates do exist for a reason.

What are those updates, anyway? What are they doing to my computer?

Most often, Microsoft and Apple send updates to close security loopholes, provide critical updates and protect against a variety of online threats. The severity and necessity of these updates vary.

For example, Microsoft released two updates in May. One corrected an email vulnerability for Outlook Express, Windows Mail and Windows Live Mail that could have allowed a hacker to gain access to your computer if you inadvertently visited a malicious site. In other words, probably an important fix if you're using one of those programs for email, but perhaps not as crucial if you get your email another way.

The other closed a loophole that could have allowed a hacker to take complete control of a computer if you were logged on with administrative user rights. An attacker could have then installed programs, changed or deleted data, or even created new accounts with full user rights, letting a cybercriminal to do even more damage. In other words, this would have been bad. Pretty important!

When computer-repair technicians first examine a malfunctioning machine, one of the first things they look for is whether the operating system's automatic updates are running. All too often they notice that a machine suffering from a virus or spyware has not been updated in a while. It's not a coincidence.

Since we're not all computer scientists or cyber-criminologists, we can't usually figure out on our own when an update is important. That's why we recommend leaving it to the experts -- when they say an update is required, it's probably a good idea to follow their lead.

Automatic and easy

The good news is that both Windows (for PCs) and Snow Leopard (for Macs) are designed to take care of these updates automatically, if you let them. These automatic updates are much more convenient -- this way, you don't have to remember to check for updates, or figure out on your own whether this update or that update is truly necessary.

Automatic updates load in the background whenever you're connected to the Internet, and they're designed so they won't slow you down or interfere with other work -- even if you're on a dial-up connection. If you sign off and the download is interrupted, it will pick up from where it left off the next time you connect. Once the update has downloaded, all you need to do is install it -- and yes, this does sometimes require a reboot.

In Windows, if you let the updates download and install automatically, it will default to do so at 3 a.m. So, unless you have big computing plans at that time, the whole process should take place without you even noticing it. If your computer is off at that time, Windows will run the update the next time you start up.

So, what do I do?

To turn on Automatic Updates:

• Click Start, and then click Control Panel
• Click Automatic Updates
• Choose Automatic (recommended)

So, though we can't promise the updates will be terribly exciting, the truth is that they are important. Operating system updates represent a crucial defense against the expanding collection of online threats, helping protect your computer, your files and your personal information.

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