It’s the Monday before Patch Tuesday – make sure Windows Auto Update is off

Traditionally, August finds Microsoft in a mid-summer lull, with lots of folks on vacation and more than the usual chances of surprising screw-ups from second-string staff. It’s an excellent month to sit on the sidelines and see what problems appear with the latest round of Windows and Office patches. Here’s how to watch and wait for bug crowd-sourcing to commence.

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If you haven’t patched your machine since May, you’re in harm’s way and need to get your BlueKeep inoculation right away.

For most other people – those who aren’t guarding state secrets or recalculating the national debt in real time – it’s smart to hold off on Windows and Office patches for a couple of weeks to see what turns belly up. I call it crowd-sourced bug hunting, and describe it in "The case against knee-jerk installation of Windows patches."

Yes, there are exceptions. Occasionally, a patch appears that requires an immediate response from "normal" users. But those cases are far from common, and they’re getting less common as time rolls by. If an immediate threat raises its ugly head, you’ll hear about it here at Computerworld. If a bug plagues a new patch, as they so often do, you’ll hear about that, too.

It’s time to make sure Windows Automatic Update is turned off. Temporarily.

Blocking automatic update on Win7 and 8.1

If you haven’t recently patched Windows XP, Vista, Win7, Server 2003, 2008, or 2008 R2 systems, drop everything and get patched now. Once you’ve installed the BlueKeep patches, come back here and turn automatic update off. (No need to bother with XP and Vista; they aren’t getting automatically updated anyway.)

If you’re using Windows 7 or 8.1, click Start > Control Panel > System and Security. Under Windows Update, click the "Turn automatic updating on or off" link. Click the "Change Settings" link on the left. Verify that you have Important Updates set to "Never check for updates (not recommended)" and click OK.

Blocking automatic update on Win10 Pro 1803 or 1809

If you’re on Win10 Pro version 1803, you have three options: Stick with version 1803 a while longer; upgrade to version 1809; or jump the shark and go for 1903. I have details on the options, what they entail, and how to pursue them here in "Is Windows pushing you to upgrade? Don’t be bullied. There’s a middle path."

If you’re using Win10 Pro version 1809, or if you’re on 1803 and want to stay there a bit longer, I recommend delaying Automatic Updates for at least 15 days.

Step 1. Using an administrative account, click Start > Settings > Update & Security. 

Step 2. On the left, choose Windows Update. On the right, click the link for Advanced options. If you’re using Win10 version 1803 or 1809, you see the settings in the screenshot. 

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Advanced options for Automatic Updates in WIndows 10 1803 or 1809.

Step 3. The first box – “Semi-Annual Channel” – is no longer recognized by Microsoft. It's changed the terminology over and over again. In our newly-redefined update world, choosing “Semi-Annual Channel” adds 60 days to the “feature update” setting discussed in the next step. I recommend that you nod, wink and, in the first box, choose Semi-Annual Channel.

Step 4. To further delay new versions until they’ve been minimally tested, roll the “feature update” deferral setting all the way up to 365 days. That tells the Windows Updater (unless Microsoft makes another “mistake,” as it has numerous times in the past) that it should wait until 425 days after a new version is released (60 days for Semi-Annual Channel + 365 days deferral) before upgrading and re-installing Windows on your machine.

Of course, nobody expects Microsoft to keep its mitts off your 1803 machine until Jan. 12, 2020 (calculated using the version 1809 release date + 425 days) or refrain from upgrading your 1809 machine until July 19, 2020 (calculated using the version 1903 release date + 425 days): Even though those settings appear here, Microsoft is sure to ignore them and blast you onto the next version, somehow, at some point. We just don’t know how or when quite yet. Stay tuned.

If you’d like to block 1903 for the foreseeable future, follow the instructions in, "How to block the Windows 10 May 2019 Update, version 1903, from installing."

Step 5. To delay cumulative updates, set the “quality update” deferral to 15 days or so. (“Quality update” = cumulative update = bug fix.) In my experience, Microsoft usually yanks bad Win10 cumulative updates within a couple of weeks of their initial release. By setting this to 10 or 15 or 20 days, Win10 will update itself after the major screams of pain have subsided and (with some luck) the bad cumulative updates have been pulled or re-issued. Notably, in February 2019, it took Microsoft 18 days to fix its first-Tuesday bugs.

Step 6. Just “X” out of the settings pane. You don’t need to explicitly save anything.

Step 7. Don’t click Check for updates. Ever.

If there are any real howlers – months where the cumulative updates were irretrievably bad, and never got any better, as they were in July 2018 – we’ll let you know, loud and clear. 

Tired old approach for Win10 Home 1803 and 1809

If you have Win10 Home, version 1803 or 1809, your only reasonable option (other than installing a third-party patch blocker) is to set your internet connection to “metered.” Metered connections are an update-blocking kludge that seems to work to fend off cumulative updates, but as best I can tell still doesn’t have Microsoft’s official endorsement as a cumulative update prophylactic. Worryingly, there are some reports that Microsoft is pushing some 1903 upgrades even if they go over metered connections.

To set your Ethernet connection as metered: Click Start > Settings > Network & Internet. On the left, choose Ethernet. On the right, click on your Ethernet connection. Then move the slider for Metered connection to On.

To set your Wi-Fi connection as metered: Click Start > Settings > Network & Internet. On the left, choose Wi-Fi. On the right, click on your Wi-Fi connection. Move the slider for Metered connection to On.

If you set your internet connection to metered, you need to watch closely as the month unfolds, and judge when it’s safe to let the demons in the door. At that point, turn “metered” off, and just let your machine update itself. Don’t click Check for updates.

And then there’s Win10 version 1903

If you’re running Win10 version 1903, you’re entering uncharted water. We’ve heard lots of promises about the new updating regimen, but haven’t been through enough update cycles to know exactly what’s going to happen. The recent announcement that Win10 1909 will act like a cumulative update, but rate as a version change/Service Pack in some undefined sense just adds to the confusion.

If you’re using Win10 1903 Home, we still don’t have enough experience – or reliable documentation – to say for sure, but it seems to be a good idea to both set your connection to metered (as discussed in the preceding section) and to click Pause updates twice on the Windows Update page – for a total of 14 paused days. Historically, that’s been sufficient to avoid the worst problems.

If you’re using Win10 1903 Pro, and you haven’t yet set feature update or cumulative update deferrals, the instructions for setting them are the same as those for setting Win10 1803 or 1809 deferrals, as explained earlier. On the other hand, if you have set deferrals for either, the “Choose when updates are installed” deferral piece of the Advanced Options pane disappears

If you can see “Choose when updates are installed,” I suggest you defer feature updates for 365 days, although with Win10 “19H2” still a great unknown, it’s hard to guess how or if this setting will come into play. I also suggest you defer quality updates (cumulative updates) by 15 days. You won’t be able to see those settings once they’ve been changed unless you dive into the registry, but it looks like they “stick” even if you can’t see them.

Maybe Microsoft will get its patching act together before 1909 becomes a reality. Or maybe not.

We’re at MS-DEFCON 2 on AskWoody.

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