Smart ways to manage updates on Windows and macOS

Updates: They're what computers crave.

Laptop typing
We see you about to click "remind me tomorrow" for the 4,384th time. Don't do it.Etienne Boulanger via Unsplash

The operating systems running our computers are constantly evolving, regularly maintained pieces of software that (in theory) improve and adapt over time. The updates developers use to keep things working smoothly are important for adding new features, improving speed and performance, patching security holes, fixing bugs, and more.

They're not to be neglected, but they can be controlled. 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.

Managing updates on Windows

To find update options on Windows, open the Start menu and click the cog icon on the left (or hit Win+I on your keyboard). Follow the Update & Security link, then go to Windows Update to control how your computer updates itself.

You can click Check for updates at the top of the page to force Windows 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, so click Pause updates for 7 days to tell Windows not to apply any patches for the next week.

When it's not paused, Windows attempts to install updates during what it calls "active hours"—times when your computer is on but not being used in any meaningful way. Click Change active hours and you'll be able to either set these hours manually (for overnight, perhaps) or turn the Automatically adjust... toggle switch to "on" and let Windows try to work out when you are and aren't busy on your computer.

When applying updates outside of active hours, Windows may restart your computer without warning you. If you'd rather than didn't happen, select Advanced options from the Update & Security screen, then make sure the Show a notification... toggle switch is set to "on." You can also enable the Restart this device... option to tell Windows to wait longer before prompting you to restart.

The Receive updates for other Microsoft products... option also on this screen controls whether or not other Microsoft software (such as Office 365) gets 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 Wi-Fi (on a Surface Pro tablet, for example).

Finally, on the Advanced options screen, there's a Pause updates drop-down menu that lets you extend a break in updates for longer than a week. You can go up to 35 days without getting updates, but you'll then need to install whatever patches are waiting before you can apply another pause.

Back on the Windows Update screen, you can select View update history 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.

It's also worth clicking the Delivery Optimization link on the left of the Update & Security page. 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 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.

Managing updates on macOS

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It's no good when your computer decides to restart for updates in the middle of work.Deposit Photos

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. Click More info... to see details of any updates you're about to apply.

At the bottom of the dialog box is an Automatically keep my Mac up to date check box—tick this to have macOS handle updates for you, from 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 tick boxes under Advanced. With it ticked, all five sub-settings get ticked too. If it's unticked, you get the three recommended settings ticked instead.

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

The next tick box, 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 tick box controls the final stage, setting whether updates are applied when they're available or when you specifically confirm they can be.

The Install app updates from the App Store tick box 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 or not key system data files and security files get patched automatically or manually. Even if you don't want the entire operating system updating automatically, 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.