Smart ways to manage software updates on Windows and macOS

Updates: They're what computers crave.
A person sitting in front of a macOS laptop looking annoyed because it decided to update at the wrong time.
If you manage your update settings, your laptop won't restart at the worst possible time. Steinar Engeland / Unsplash

This story has been updated. It was originally published on June 10, 2019.

The operating systems running our computers are constantly evolving. Software updates keep things working smoothly, and are important for adding new features, improving speed and performance, patching security holes, fixing bugs, and more.

You should not neglect them, but you can control when they happen. Both Windows and macOS offer a variety of useful tools for making sure your laptop or desktop computer installs updates on your terms and in a way that best matches how you work. 

Let’s take a look at how to make the best of those options.

How to manage updates on Windows 10 and 11

To find update options on Windows 11, click the Windows button on the taskbar to open the Start menu and open Settings (or hit Win+I on your keyboard). From the emerging window, go to Windows Update in the top right corner, and control how your computer updates itself. On Windows 10, all the steps are the same except the last one: you click Update & Security from the settings window.

You can click Check for updates in the page header to force Windows 10 or 11 to scan for a newer version, but your computer will also do this automatically. The options underneath let you exercise more control over how your computer handles these updates. On Windows 11, click Pause updates to tell Windows not to apply any patches for a set period of time—use the dropdown menu on the right to stall updates from one to five weeks. Windows 10 has the same pause option, but the shortcut restricts you to seven-day blocks. To choose something else, click Advanced options and pick a date from the Select date dropdown menu under Pause updates.

[Related: Why you should stop putting off your device updates]

When it’s not paused, Windows will attempt to install updates during what it calls “active hours”—times when your computer is on but not being used in any meaningful way. On Windows 11, go to Advanced options, then Active hours to see what Windows currently considers a good time to update your operating system. You can edit this schedule by clicking on the dropdown menu on the right of Adjust active hours and setting it to Manually. On Windows 10, click Change active hours from the main update settings page, then hit Change next to your current active hours.

When applying updates outside of active hours, Windows may restart your computer without warning you. If you’d rather that didn’t happen, Windows 11’s Notify me when a restart is required to finish updating setting is right above the Active hours option—toggle the switch on the right to On. You can also toggle off the switch next to Get me up to date, which will make installing updates a priority even during active hours. These settings are behind the Advanced options menu on Windows 10. Once there, toggle off the switch under Restart this device as soon as possible…, and turn on the one under Update notifications.

Regardless of whether you’re using Windows 10 or 11, the Receive updates for other Microsoft products option is also on this screen. It controls whether or not other Microsoft software (such as Office 365) will be updated at the same time as Windows. Download updates over metered connections, meanwhile, controls whether or not your computer will download updates when you’re using a cellular connection rather than WiFi (on a Surface Pro tablet, for example).

It’s also worth clicking Delivery Optimization (under Additional options on Windows 11 and in the left-hand sidebar on Windows 10). Here you can choose whether or not Windows sources update code from other computers on your network and the web, as well as from Microsoft. Using a variety of sources can make update delivery faster, especially on spotty connections.

Speaking of connection speeds, select Advanced options from the same page to tell Windows how much of your available bandwidth you want to spend on downloading updates. If you’re busy downloading large files for another purpose besides updating Windows, you might want to dial down some of these settings to make Windows updates less of a priority.

Back on the main Windows Update screen, you can select Update history (View update history on Windows 10) to not only see which updates have been recently applied to your computer, but to also uninstall them and roll back to an earlier version if a recent patch is causing problems.

How to manage updates on macOS

You don’t get as many settings and controls around operating system updates on macOS as you do with Windows. But if you want to see the options you’ve got, open the Apple menu, then choose System Preferences and Software Update.

If updates are waiting to be installed, you can click Update Now to apply them. If the button doesn’t appear, there aren’t any available, and you’ll see a message saying your system is up to date. Click More info to see details of any updates you’re about to apply.

[Related: Fix a slow Mac computer with these 4 hidden tweaks]

At the bottom of the dialog box is an Automatically keep my Mac up to date check box—check it to have macOS handle updates for you, from automatically scanning for new software versions to installing them on your system. You’ll get a notification when new updates are ready to be installed, giving you a chance to postpone the process until the evening or the next day. It’s also like a master switch for the individual checkboxes under Advanced. When you check it, all five sub-settings will be enabled too. 

To take more control over the installation of updates, click Advanced. Select Check for updates to have macOS automatically check for new patches or choose to do this manually each time via the Software Update dialog box.

The next checkbox, Download new updates when available, does the same for downloading updates: it’ll happen automatically or only when you manually force it. The Install macOS updates checkbox controls the final stage, setting whether your computer applies updates as soon as they’re available or when you specifically confirm they can be.

The Install app updates from the App Store checkbox lets you set macOS apps to update automatically, too. To check the status of individual app updates, open the App Store on your Mac and click the Updates link.

Back on the Advanced dialog box in Software Update, the final Install system data files and security updates checkbox controls whether macOS patches key system data and security files automatically or manually Even if you don’t want the entire operating system updating on its own, you can use this setting to keep the most important parts of it patched.

Apple recommends that you select at least Check for updates, Download new updates when available, and Install system data files and security updates to keep your system safe and protected. It’s then up to you to install major macOS updates when you want to.