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TECH Q&A

Shouldyouheed allyour software updates?

By Gordon Koch , Albuquerque, New Mexico

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If my computer says it has a software update, should I install it?

Expert Bio Picture

Tech Expert Chris Pirillo President, Lockergnome.com

Expert Answer:

Ah, don't you love it when you get that bright, friendly little window popping up and telling you that there are software updates available for your computer? In most cases, it's usually good to heed the message (most updates address and correct security issues) -- but, as with anything else, you'll want to verify the source and act accordingly.

Microsoft's Windows Update Tool will usually be a reliable indicator of safe (and recommended) software updates. Say what you want about some of Microsoft's more recent blunders (*cough* Vista *cough*), but the Windows Update Tool will rarely lead you astray.

On the other hand, if the tool prompting you to update your software was provided by your computer system's OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), it's hard to say with certainty that such updates will really be mandatory. Some updates are simply minor changes in driver software that, to the naked eye, don't really matter.

The OEM's intentions are probably good, but if you're on a Windows system and the OEM tool is giving you update recommendations that the Microsoft Update Tool doesn't even mention, then proceed with caution. Like granddaddy always used to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

As far as I know, my granddaddy never said that. But it does sound like just the sort of nugget of sage advice that's often dispensed by the elderly -- like Yoda, right? Most Linux lovers and OS X fanatics would wink and contend that truly sage advice would advise against using Windows at all, but I digress.

If the update tool you're using isn't Microsoft's or your OEM's, then be really, really careful. Sometimes spyware can masquerade as an update tool! When in doubt, use the "Windows Update" option found in Internet Explorer's Tools menu.

Oh, and if you haven't yet installed Internet Explorer 8, do the world a favor and update? Please? Better yet, try using another browser like Apple's Safari, Mozilla's Firefox, or Google's Chrome. They're just as good and, in many ways, faster when it comes to rendering Web pages that are heavy with JavaScript.

Another reliable option for ensuring that your PC software is properly up to date is by visiting FileHippo.com and downloading its free update checker. It'll scan your PC and give you updating recommendations.

If you're using a Mac, AppFresh is a different dog with the same tricks. Many Mac apps also have a software update feature built directly into them if their creators are using the Sparkle framework (a free tool for software developers that helps apply updates directly to the app without much fuss or bother). If only more Windows apps offered such a feature...

Whatever the source of the update, always be aware that things can go wrong and never discount the importance of making a backup before you do anything to change your system in a major way. If you're using Windows, you've got the System Restore safety net. OS X? Time Machine. But most real software updates will ask whether you want to make a backup of whatever it is being updated, so be smart and click "yes."

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