Windows Updates: The secret life of Windows 8

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
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.

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