FAQ: How to manage Windows 10 updates

If you've spent years mastering the ins and outs of Windows Update, prepare to do some unlearning. Windows 10, with its emphasis on "Windows as a service," rewrites almost all the rules of updates and upgrades. Here's what you need to know.

This article has been updated multiple times since its initial publication. The most recent update was January 16, 2018.

With Windows 10, Microsoft has completely rewritten the Windows Update rulebook. For expert users and IT pros accustomed to having fine-grained control over the update process, these changes might seem wrenching and even draconian.

You can't pick and choose which updates to install? There's no option to delay updates on PCs running Windows 10 Home? Upgrades to new versions are mandatory?

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The new update rules are designed to solve some nagging problems in the PC ecosystem. For example, if every user can choose some updates and reject others, the number of potential configurations approaches infinity; Microsoft argues that all those untested variations make effective quality assurance much more difficult.

Likewise, Microsoft's generous 10-year support lifecycle has enabled fragmentation in the installed base: Over the past decade, Microsoft's engineering staff have been required to support as many as five major versions at the same time. In a world where security challenges arrive at breakneck speed, that stretches support resources to the breaking point.

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And thus a new approach to Windows Update, whose goals are to have the majority of Windows users fully patched at all times, with only a few versions to support and an installed base that is mostly running one of the two most recent versions.

This FAQ covers the details you need to know, including important changes to the full Windows Update feature set since the initial release of Windows 10.

What kind of updates are available for Windows 10?

Microsoft provides two types of update packages for Windows 10:

  • Feature updates are the equivalent of what used to be called version upgrades. They include new features and require a multi-gigabyte download and a full setup. Each version update gets a major version number that corresponds to its date of release, in the yymm format, as well as a build number that identifies it. Version 1709, for example, was finalized in September 2017 and is identified as build 16299. Microsoft's schedule is to deliver Windows 10 feature updates twice a year.
  • Quality updates address security and reliability issues and do not include new features. These updates are cumulative, and they increment the minor version number after the major version number. The January 2018 cumulative update for version 1709, for example, is 16299.192. Even if you skip several months' worth of updates, you can install the latest cumulative update and you will be completely up to date.

All available security and reliability updates are included in a cumulative update and cannot be selected or rejected individually. That's a major change from previous versions and a big surprise to anyone upgrading to Windows 10 for the first time.

Besides these cumulative updates, you might see servicing stack updates delivered separately. These update packages fix issues in the code that Windows 10 uses to scan for and process updates. Security updates for Adobe Flash Player and definition updates for Windows Defender are also delivered separately.

Hardware drivers and firmware updates can be delivered through Windows Update. Typically, these packages are provided only when the driver fixes a bug that causes instability on targeted systems.

How are updates delivered in Windows 10?

For consumers and small businesses, both quality and feature updates are delivered via Windows Update. Organizations can use internal update management solutions, such as Windows Server Update Services, to distribute updates to computers on a corporate network.

Feature updates are delivered according to servicing channels. (In early releases of Windows 10, these were called branches. The concept is the same; only the names have changed.)

By default, all Windows 10 computers are enrolled in the Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted), which was previously known as the Current Branch. For devices assigned to this channel, updates are delivered via Windows Update shortly after they're released by Microsoft.

Because of the enormous number of machines that receive Windows updates, Microsoft "throttles" update delivery to manage the load on its servers. As a result, it may take weeks or even months for a feature update to roll out to all of the hundreds of millions of devices in each servicing channel.

After Microsoft determines that initial reliability and security issues discovered during the first few months of release have been addressed, it declares the current version ready for widespread deployment in the Semi-Annual Channel.

Quality updates are delivered at the same time to all supported branches. These cumulative updates arrive on the second Tuesday of each month, or Patch Tuesday, as it's widely known. (Microsoft officials refers to this day as Update Tuesday.)

Microsoft may deliver additional updates throughout the month, including cumulative updates and servicing stack updates. So-called out-of-band patches to address critical security issues may appear at any time, generally in response to reports that a Windows flaw is being actively exploited.

How can I tell which updates are installed?

See the list under Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update > View Installed Update History. The list is divided into three groups: Quality Updates, Driver Updates, and Other Updates. Click the entry for any update to see further details about that update, if they're available.

How do I know whether my system is up to date?

Follow this link for instructions on how to identify the build installed on your device and compare it to the master list of Windows 10 updates:

Windows 10 tip: Find and decode secret version details

When does Windows 10 install updates?

Windows 10 downloads updates in the background and installs them automatically. Using options on the Windows Update page in Settings, you can specify Active Hours (a block of up to 18 continuous hours) when you don't want to be interrupted by these installations. In theory, that prevents a large update from interfering with your workday activities, although the strategy fails if you shut your device down at the end of the day and don't restart until the next day.

Beginning with version 1709 (the Creators Update), Windows 10 offers additional notification options as well as the option to choose a specific time (during your lunch break, for example) when updates will be installed.

Can I delay the installation of updates?

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If you're running Windows 10 Home, there is no supported way to delay the installation of updates. When a feature update is available, it will install in the next window outside Active Hours. You can try various workarounds, such as shutting off the Windows Update service or setting your network connection as metered, but these only briefly postpone the inevitable.

In Pro, Enterprise, and Education editions, you can defer feature updates for up to 16 months after their initial release to the Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted). In addition, you can defer quality updates, including the monthly Patch Tuesday fixes, by up to 30 days.

These deferrals use the Windows Update for Business feature set. For full instructions on how to use Windows Update for Business, see "How to take control of Windows 10 updates and upgrades (even if you don't own a business)."

After you reach the maximum deferral period for each type of update, Windows 10 installs it automatically. No further deferrals are permitted.

Can I uninstall a driver delivered through Windows Update?

Yes. Follow these instructions to remove the driver and prevent it from being installed again:

Windows 10 tip: Hide unwanted drivers in Windows Update

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