The single biggest complaint about Windows 10 is its approach to security and feature updates. Monthly cumulative updates and twice-yearly feature updates are downloaded and installed automatically, which can result in unexpected reboots that disrupt productivity and risk the loss of unsaved work. That pain point is particularly acute for anyone running Windows 10 Home edition, which lacks any controls for delaying and deferring those updates.
Since the initial release of Windows 10 nearly four years ago, Microsoft has been tweaking its approach to automatic updates, adding Active Hours settings to ensure that mandatory restarts are less likely to be intrusive. Recent feature updates have also made notifications of pending updates more obvious.
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Are those changes enough to ease the pain? A new study from a group of UK-based researchers suggests Microsoft has more work to do.
The study, titled "In Control with No Control: Perceptions and Reality of Windows 10 Home Edition Update Features," was presented this week at the Workshop on Usable Security (USEC) 2019 in San Diego, California. Researchers Jason Morris, Ingolf Becker, and Simon Parkin of University College London, built a detailed model of Microsoft's update process as of Windows 10 version 1803 and then surveyed a group of 93 Windows 10 Home users.
The overall conclusions were a mixed bag. In general, the survey respondents think that the Windows 10 update approach is an improvement over that found in previous Windows versions. Among participants who had experience with earlier Windows versions 53 percent reported they felt updating Windows 10 is easier, versus only 8 percent who found the process more difficult.
Similarly, a majority of respondents agreed that the Windows 10 update process causes fewer interruptions than in previous versions (43 percent agreed, 21 percent disagreed).
Where Microsoft has fallen down, the researchers argue, is in building an update system that is "dependent on a complex range of user and system properties." That system, illustrated by the flowchart shown here, is simply too complicated for the average home user to understand.
The Active Hours feature draws the most criticism in this respect, with the authors arguing that its default settings are inappropriate for 97 percent of their test subjects.
To minimize disruption, they note, "users need to understand the 'active hours' concept and ... the configuration of active hours should ideally align with their usage patterns."
Neither of those conditions are true, they found. First, only 28 percent of respondents were even aware of the Active Hours feature. Second, the default window of 8AM to 5PM might be appropriate for businesses, but it's wildly out of sync for home users, based on the self-reported behavior of this group. Of the 93 survey participants, only three reported hours of use within those limits, with the overwhelming majority typically using their PC on weekday evenings.
And even among the 26 participants who were aware of the feature, 10 had not changed it from the default settings even though it clashed with their daily schedule.
Not surprisingly, that resulted in about half of the survey respondents reporting that they had experienced unexpected restarts.
The other noteworthy finding from the research is that users don't understand how often updates are delivered, nor do they appreciate the difference between monthly quality updates and semi-annual feature updates. That can lead to anxiety when an unexpected feature update takes well over an hour compared to the 12 minutes or less that a monthly cumulative update takes.
The survey respondents, who were generally well educated and experienced PC users, reported by an overwhelming 95 percent margin that they trust Microsoft as much as or more than other software makers at the task of delivering updates.
The researchers offered a few recommendations based on their findings.
The most important is that Windows "obtain explicit permission for restarts consistently." They note that doing so might require adjustments in the Active Hours default settings for Windows 10 Home as well as better progress displays.
Second, they criticized Windows 10 for offering insufficient notice of restarts. Unlike, say, a Chromebook, Windows 10 Home Edition does not provide a persistent warning that the system has a restart pending.
That's especially a problem when the user chooses the option to restart at a specific time. In that configuration the system shows a warning and then restarts within a few minutes. "If a user is absorbed by other tasks," the researchers argue, "the computer could, in the mind of the user, appear to restart unexpectedly despite them having been responsible for the chosen time. We think that one's computer should not reboot while in active use."
Finally, they suggest that Microsoft do a better job of warning about the significantly longer times required for feature updates. "[W]e think a notiﬁcation that describes an update as one 'that could take a little longer than other updates' is failing to set accurate expectations to support users in planning around the availability impact of these updates."
That latter recommendation skips right past the real question, of course: Why is it necessary to deliver feature updates twice a year? Given that these updates are time-consuming to install and offer significant potential for disruption, why not offer Home edition users at least some control over when updates are installed.
In fact, why not offer the option of an annual schedule for feature updates? Maybe two feature updates a year is just too many.