Windows Updates: The secret life of Windows 8

Windows Updates: The secret life of Windows 8

Summary: Windows 8 will drive tablets, desktops, and laptops with ease. Even with such a big undertaking it still has time to be doing lots of stuff that may surprise many users who haven't read the fine print.

Envy x2
HP Envy x2 -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Say what you will about the ability of Window 8 to handle every type of computer out there, it can do so fairly well. Sure there are some things easier to do in Windows 8 on a touch tablet, and other tasks more natural on a desktop or laptop. It's clear Microsoft has tried to handle every user scenario possible.

I have grown fond of using my HP Envy x2, and I do so as a touch tablet as well as a laptop. Sometimes the laptop use is strictly with the trackpad and other times by using the touch screen. It's versatile and lets me use the control method that makes the most sense for the given task. I can't imagine using Windows 8 without a touch screen.

See related: Windows 8 without touch is like a day without sunshine

Even with keeping track of all the different control methods possible to handle all of the user scenarios possible, Windows 8 has a hidden underbelly that is a little spooky. This hidden life is where Windows 8 does all of the behind-the-scenes maintenance required to keep things running smoothly. It almost seems as if the entire time I am getting things done using the system, the system is checking for updates to keep things running optimally.

There are at least three levels of maintenance that I'm aware of that Windows 8 is running in secret. The first is the OEM level, and while that's not technically Windows 8, it is part of the system operation so it feels the same.

HP, the maker of the Envy x2, has been aggressive at updating its device drivers and also releasing firmware updates to keep the hardware working properly with Windows 8. These can be set up to only happen with manual intervention, but I don't like to miss important updates like these so I have them happen automatically on a regular schedule.

These hardware updates require a system reboot to get applied, so I dutifully allow the system to reboot to get everything up-to-date. This often exposes the hidden underbelly of Windows 8 as about half the time, a reboot indicates it is applying other Windows Updates that were downloaded in secret. This is the second level of maintenance in Windows 8.

You've seen the reboot screen in Windows 8 that says it is configuring updates with a progress indicator. Sometimes these apply quickly and other times it might take a minute or two. The point is Windows 8 grabbed the updates without any indication it was happening, and then sat on them until the next system reboot.

That seems to be a reasonable approach to prevent interrupting the user, but it seems that about half the reboots I do end up with an unexpected application of Windows Updates. That hidden life of Windows 8 seems to be pretty active all the time underneath my work sessions. It's a bit odd that Windows 8 doesn't give an indication that an update is happening in the background. It's not a big deal, but that would be the courteous thing to do.

Sometimes I manually go into the Windows Update spot in the settings to see what might be lurking there. Often it shows a Windows Defender update is there to be applied automatically at some point in the future. Since these updates keep my anti-malware up-to-date, I always hit the link to go ahead and apply them. They only take a few seconds to apply so I don't understand why it was waiting for some time in the future to apply them. They require no reboot nor any user action, so why wait to update after it knows it needs to be done?

Restart needed
Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Windows Updates have a split personality that further confuses things. I can interact with most Windows Updates through the nice Metro interface accessed in settings on the Charms bar, but not always; sometimes, Windows 8 takes me to the desktop interface. Windows Updates on the desktop seem to require manual application, unlike other updates that download in the background and wait for the reboot. It's a little confusing, to be sure.

The third level of Windows 8 maintenance takes place in the app store. Windows 8 is constantly keeping an eye on apps that have updates in the store, and indicates this on the Windows Store live tile on the start screen.

I like to keep the Metro apps updated, so I dutifully enter the store and tap the link to update all the apps. This normally happens quickly, but several times the app update process has ended with an error message indicating that the apps couldn't be updated, and to try again later. At first I thought maybe the server was down, but I've come to realize it has to do with those secretly downloaded Windows updates that are waiting to be applied.

Whenever I get the app update(s) failure, I've come to realize I need to reboot the system. This triggers the pending Windows Update application, which lets the app updates complete successfully after the system is updated. The app updates seem to regularly need the system updates to be applied before the former will work.

There's nothing unusual for an app update to be dependent on a system update, but those behind-the-scenes  Windows Updates don't give any overt indication they are waiting to happen. They download invisibly and then just sit there waiting to actually be applied.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm glad that Windows 8 is serious about keeping my system protected and up-to-date. I just find it spooky that it does it in the background, but without actually applying the updates. Maybe there's somewhere I could go to see if updates are waiting to be applied during a reboot, but I shouldn't have to do that. The system could easily indicate that a restart is needed to get the PC updated. It doesn't need to be hidden from me, especially if it's going to prevent dependent app updates from working.

The update process seems like it's been designed to be a bit spooky. Ordinarily I don't mind surprises, but not when it comes to system maintenance, and especially since it happens all the time.

Update: Microsoft has online resources explaining how to configure Windows Update to avoid some of the issues detailed in this article. A good place to start is with this Microsoft Knowledgebase article dealing with automatic updates. The article explains how automatic updates work and the details of using it. It specifically covers the reboot process that is triggered after an update has been downloaded as covered in this article.

Related stories

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HP Envy x2 quick take: Good laptop and great tablet

HP Envy x2 for $525: I had to buy one at that price

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • A notification Center

    Something seriously missing from both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 is a Notification center. iOS, Android, and Blackberry all have one - Windows needs one.
    • Action Center

      In Action Center you can:

      * Review and take action on security notifications
      * Review and take action on non-security maintenance notifications (missing backups, defragmentation etc)
      * Start troubleshooting and/or recovery
      * Review archived messages/notifications

      You can turn notification messages on/off:
      * Windows update messages
      * Firewall messages
      * Internet security messages
      * Virus protection
      * Smartscreen
      * Backup notifications
      * Drive status (space management, drive health)
      * Storage spaces
      * File history.

      ... and many more

      Action Center is so much more advanced than simply a iOS notification Ccenter. Notifications, reminders, warnings and actions and recovery all in one place.
    • A notification Centre

      Agreed. That would be useful.
      • But there *is* one

        It's called the notification area and it lives to the right of your task bar and to the left of your clock. Within that, there is also the Action Center which is where Windows tells you all kinds of things that are going on.
        x I'm tc
        • Desktop

          That only applies if you live in the desktop. If you're in Metro apps a lot of the time (as you're likely to be if you're using a tablet or convertible) then the taskbar is about the worst possible place to keep notifications. Microsoft needs to bring it up a level to somewhere that's actually accessible from anywhere in the system. Perhaps the Charms bar?
          • Master Joe says...Lock Screen

            When Windows Update needs to reboot to install updates, it shows on the lock screen. Because I lock my PC anytime I'm away, it is a very visible place for me to see it. I agree with the above post that the Action Center is far superior to anything that Android, iOS, or Blackberry offers in the notification category. Yes, Windows Phone 8 is missing this. But, a notification does display when a system update is available, and, similar to Windows 8, a number corresponding to the number of app updates available displays next to the Store icon on Windows Phone 8. Could and should there be one central place for all updates and important system activities? Maybe. But, due to the dual interfaces and different uses of Windows 8, there is no perfect place to put it. Yes, perhaps the Charms bar would work, but that is only visible when in use, and I rarely use mine for much outside of shutting down, the occasional search, and a rare dive into the Settings. Between the Action Center, the lock screen, and the Store tile on the Start screen, I think the bases are covered.

            By the way, as for installing updates without your knowledge, you can change this setting, just like in any previous version of Windows. Personally, I'm very critical of someone who gets infected by something for which a patch existed and would have prevented said infection. So, I'm fine letting microsoft keep me up-to-date. For those who have pirated copies of Windows and complain that this somehow is in violation of their "rights," I couldn't possibly care what they think. Get a legit license, then we'll talk. For those who believe Microsoft is somehow harsh on piracy, I've seen MUCH worse (a program called TDS, made by an Australian company, DiamondCS, was very aggressive against pirated copies of their software, and rightfully so). Other applications lock you out of further use of it. Windows should do the same, and it's usually only the people running illegally pirated versions of the OS that claim otherwise (or those who believe open source is the greatest thing ever and have become so delusional and have lsot all sense of reality that they believe anything else is extremely evil but then turn around and use Android which is open source, when it feels like it, so go figure).

            --Master Joe
    • red spot

      When there is a notification that you should pay attention to the security shield in the lower right will be in RED. Click on it and you will see the problem area. You can also go to the Action Center directly and it will show you other items that may not be configured optimally.
    • I disagree

      I like how chrome does it. You never hear about the updates and it happens without interruption. I HATE how windows (7/vista) basically lock up randomly because an update disabled something like the networking interface necessitating a reboot that could take 5 minutes.

      ******HEY JAMES***** If you find that the battery drains on your Envy X2 even while off (shutdown), go into BIOS and disable the USB charge mode. Like other netbooks this mode will slowly drain the battery while off. The keyboard battery will always recharge the tablet but that is fairly efficient. The X2 is pretty amazing (except for the Beats audio)
  • Now that you have been using the HP Envy X2 ...

    for some time, do you find yourself wishing it had a larger screen very often (11.6 " ?) and if so how frequently would you say you connect it to larger monitor or switch to somethig with a bigger screen. I am hitting 45 years and starting to have a bit more trouble seeing smaller things. I would want to do some PC remote control using RDP and wonder if the smaller screen would be too much of a sacrifice as opposed to a 15" laptop. Any thoughts/feedback would be appreciated.
    • No big screen here

      I find the Envy screen to be fine for me. I have never connected it to a larger monitor, nor do I with any laptop I use.
    • It depends

      I have Surface Pro and Lenovo G570. I use my Surface Pro with Visual Studio and Visio for on the fly jobs while I am presenting or taking notes. But OTOH, I use my Lenovo G570 for jobs that I would do in my office such as serious coding, code reviews, deployments, configurations apart from providing Solution Architecture.
      Ram U
    • Screen just fine here.

      When I do use remote desktop the 11.6 screen is just fine, but I have very good eyesight. I even prefer it over the 13 inch screen of my Lenovo Yoga.

      Hoever I do find times where I prefer the 10.1 inch form factor of my previous Asus Transformer or the Asus Vivotab series of windows8 devices.
    • It's a very usable screen

      Most netbooks are horrible where you need to really bump the font size on everything and then the window doesn't fit. I find myself bumping the browser zoom about 20% on the X2 but since the screen has good resolution everything still fits fine. Except for video editing, the X2 could be my only device.
  • What's the problem?

    Do you really want to go down into the weeds about why Windows is performing updates to the operating system? I don't. Why is that a problem?

    Microsoft's Secure Computing Initiative from long ago is still in their DNA. Redmond has too much at stake with enterprise customers to let Windows become a vector for malware if it is avoidable. So I, for one, am glad that there are Microsoft updates going on, whether I explicitly know about them or not. While I am much more technically inclined than most of my colleagues, I still not going to second guess whether I should apply an update or not. I'm going to apply all of them. To pick and choose among the offered updates is suicide.

    While the reboots may be an untimely interruption, be happy that when they are finished, you will be better off than before. Isn't that worth something? I know it makes me sleep better at night.
    • OS Updates

      Very, very few people know enough about any OS to pick and chose which updates to install.
      • Errr....

        That's why after a period of time, all critical/security updates will be installed automatically [unless the user changed the setting].
    • I wouldn't mind a notification

      when updates are downloaded and/or ready to be installed. I can see the point James is making. Not that there is some nefarious actions happening behind the scenes of windows8 as the article might be suggesting. Just that a quick note to alert users that updates are ready.
  • Windows 8

    No need to update Windows 8 here. No Metro or schizophrenic desktop experience, no kill switch, I have DVD playback, and even a start menu. is good.
    • @zealaudio

      Wait, you don't need to update your version of Windows? Hmm...
      • RE:

        Shut up Windows 8 Shill-Troll.