Updated by Tina Sieber on 26 October 2017.
Ever since Windows 10 hit the scene in 2015, we’ve gotten big updates every 6-8 months plus a bunch of minor updates between each milestone. Some haven’t even upgraded yet, choosing instead to chill on Windows 7 or, God forbid, Windows XP (mitigate the risks of running Windows XP).
Windows Update is a fickle beast. Sometimes it runs so smoothly you don’t notice an update happened. But more often than not, updates occur at the most inopportune of times and/or bring unexpected troubles. We have valid reasons for hating Windows Update.
So before you run Windows Update again, here are a few things to do and keep in mind to minimize headaches and frustrations. Ignore at your own peril.
1. Wait for the Right Time
Just because a new update came out doesn’t mean you have to apply it!
If you’re suffering from system instabilities and the new update claims to address them, then yes, go ahead and run Windows Update ASAP. But if your system is working just fine, then ask yourself if you really need whatever the next update wants to add.
Is it a security update? You should probably install it. Is it a patch for printers and you don’t have a printer? Skip it. Look up the KB number of the patch (e.g. KB4041676) to learn more about each update’s intentions. But more importantly, check online to see if early updaters are reporting errors and/or instabilities.
If you decide against it, you can defer non-security updates for up to 365 days, but only if you’re using Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, or Education. However, you can temporarily disabling Windows Update, even when you’re on Windows Home.
You should also ask yourself if now is the right time to update. If you have a term paper due this week, wait until it’s done — you do NOT want to risk a bad update that renders your system inoperable. If you have a dinner reservation coming up, wait until you get back. Updating can take up to 30 minutes (or several hours if it’s problematic and you need to revert changes).
2. Create a Windows Recovery Drive
The worst-case scenario for any Windows update is a corrupted operating system that won’t boot. If that ever happens, you’ll need to reinstall Windows altogether — and in order to do that with a non-booting system, you’ll need a recovery drive.
How to Create a Recovery Drive in Windows 10
The good news is, Windows 10 comes with a built-in tool for creating recovery drives:
- Connect an empty USB drive with at least 8GB of space.
- Open the Start Menu and search for recovery drive.
- Select Create a recovery drive.
- Follow the Recovery Drive Creator Wizard’s instructions.
You might also choose to create an install-from-scratch drive using the Media Creation Tool, which doesn’t come with Windows 10 and must be downloaded. This option allows you to create a USB drive (only 3GB needed) or a DVD. Learn more in our article on creating Windows 10 installation media.
3. Find and Record Your Product Keys
If you do end up needing to install Windows from scratch, you’ll also need the product keys for your installed software. While your Windows 10 product key is tied to your motherboard and you should not need it to upgrade or reinstall Windows, we recommend backing it up anyway.
Fortunately, product key recovery is as simple as using a freeware tool: ProduKey. ProduKey is a portable (i.e. no need to install) utility that scans your system for product keys belonging to notable apps, including Microsoft Office 2000 to 2010, Adobe and Autodesk products, and most Windows versions (not all Windows 10 licenses though).
If you need something more powerful, try Recover Keys. It costs $30 but can find all kinds of license keys belonging to over 9,000 different apps and products.
4. Enable System Restore
Before Windows applies an update, it backs up various parts of the system, including the Windows Registry. This is a measure of protection against small errors: if the update causes minor instabilities, you can revert back to a pre-update restore point.
Unless the System Restore feature is disabled!
How to Create a Restore Point in Windows 10
Press Windows + Q, type restore, and select Create a restore point to open the System Protection controls. Make Protection is set to On for your system drive. Press Create… to create a fresh restore point.
To be fair, System Restore can use up a lot of disk space (up to hundreds of MB per restore point) so disabling it may make sense on systems without much free space. However, we do recommend making a restore point before each update just in case. Afterwards, if you’re satisfied with stability, you can disable it again to free up used space.
5. Back Up Sensitive Data
System Restore won’t save your personal files, so if an update goes awry and your system gets wiped, you could lose a lot of non-backed-up data.
We have an article outlining all the files you should keep backed up, as well as files you don’t need to worry about. At the very least, back up your Documents and Downloads folders, plus any media-related files you might have (e.g. music, videos, etc.). Store them on an external drive, or even better, a NAS device. Learn more in our overview of data backup basics.
For a more comprehensive solution, consider making an ISO image of your system. This lets you restore the entire state of your system at a later time if you need to. This is also how you would, for example, move Windows from HDD to SSD.
Dealing With Windows Update Issues
All of this is necessary because Windows Update is imperfect, so don’t neglect it. But what happens when you want to update but can’t?
First of all, make sure your Windows Update settings are set up properly. If Windows Update is stuck, there are several steps you can try to unstick it. If you’re facing general problems, try this guide to resolving Windows Update errors.
What does your Windows Update routine look like? Got any tips or tricks to share? Let us know in the comments below!