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Windows Setup Guide: Updates

This step should be taken immediately after updating your drivers. Patching your computer is essential and updating Windows is essential. Without updating your software components your computer will be less stable and more prone to hackers and worms. The chapter on security will let you better understand the concept of security, but the understanding at this point is peripheral. It is a great burden, but it's part of the responsibility to owning a computer on the Internet.

1. Windows Updates
2. Office Updates
3. Antivirus Updates
4. Other Updates

1. Windows Updates

The most important step to updating your computer is to update Windows itself. Windows is a complex system of executables that work together to produce a single interface that programs can act as components of. Since Windows is the underlying outward component of your computer it is the most vulnerable. The problem of vulnerability is compacted by the fact that millions of other users run Windows, and many of which aren't patched properly. This creates a very large number of users that are vulnerable, and this makes the potential for worms much greater and it makes it much easier for hackers because the vast number of unpatched similar systems that are prone to a known set of entrance methods.

Windows is patched from two systems that work together to make it as easy as possible to keep your computer patched. However, these systems require that you have an Internet connection, and assume you have a stable and reasonably fast connection. The latest patches can be extremely large, and on a slow dial-up connection it could take a considerable amount of time to download them. It should be noted that even pirated versions of Windows can apply security patches, but security roll-ups called service packs are usually limited to only legal copies of the operating system.

The first update system is called Windows Update and it can be accessed from http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com. Become very familiar with that web address because it's critical that you use it to patch your computer. The web site looks differently on varying versions of Windows, but the general layout is the same. When you connect you're presented with a choice to scan for patches. When you choose to scan it will very quickly check which patches you have downloaded previously for your version of Windows and then give you a list of the patches they want you to download. Then you choose to download the patches. You will have a progress bar that shows you the download progress first, and then the installation progress. Once you install patches you typically have to restart. Once you have restarted following a patch you should check Windows Update again to make sure there aren't remaining patches to apply.

The second update system needs less user interaction and it's called Automatic Updates. This is a system for Windows that runs in the background and that periodically checks the update catalog for your system. When it detects that there are updates it can either notify you that there are updates, or automatically download them and install. Typically you will want to turn the auto installation feature on and set it for a time you're not using the computer. You can either find this feature in the control panel as Automatic Updates or in the System Properties as Automatic Updates. You can get to the control panel from your start menu, and to the system properties from the control panel under the system icon.

You should leave Automatic Updates on and have it check for updates daily at a time you'll know the computer will be on. And you should at least monthly check Windows Updates for security patches.

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2. Office Updates

For users of Microsoft Office it is imperative that you also update your Office version. Office is a suite of applications that can contain Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, Infopath, Access, and Publisher. Due to the popularity of these programs it means that worms and hackers often exploit the known flaws in these programs that should be repaired from vendor patches from Microsoft. This is especially true with Outlook because it's an email program that parses complex programmed email messages from untrusted sources, such as with spam.

The Microsoft web site features a Office section that allows you to download updates. There is even a scan feature much like the Windows Update system that allows the web site to search for updates for your specific version of Office. This site is located at http://office.microsoft/officeupdate, but links to this section can be found in numerous locations on http://www.microsoft.com and especially in http://office.microsoft.com. Once you tell it to scan it will return to you within a few moments what components you need to update. And then it will let you click a button to install these particular updates. You usually do not need to restart following an update to Office, but you may have to run the scan multiple times as some updates need to follow other updates.

You should check for Office patches at least once a month.

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3. Antivirus Updates

This is a topic that I cover in great detail in my malware guide. An antivirus application is a program that has a set of detection rules that uses a list of known viruses, worms, trojans, etc. to detect files on your computer that match the files in the list. This means that in order for these programs to be effective that they must have an up to date list, otherwise they can only detect old viruses, worms, trojans, etc. This also means that you must update the actual antivirus program from time to time. The virus recognization files are called reference files or definition files depending on the vendor of the program, but they're the same thing. Typically your virus scanner should be set to automatically download updates, and you should check periodically if they scanner is being updated properly. You should also check the vendor's website from time to time to see if there are any known issues with the scanner, and if any patches are available. It should be noted that many antivirus programs come with an expiration date. After it expires you can no longer download updates and you will need to buy a new subscription. It should be noted that many free virus scanners exist, but they're usually not as user friendly and some even infest your computer with adware or spyware that cause popups and such. Be very careful what program you choose for your virus protection.

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4. Other Updates

From a security standpoint it is not as important to update other programs as their diversity protects them. However, there are less diverse programs you need to be careful of. These include AOL, AIM, mIRC, Yahoo Messenger, Firefox, Mozilla, Netscape, Getright, Adobe products such as Photoshop, Macromedia products such as Flash, Winamp, etc. But, even less common programs should be updated. Generally newer versions of programs have more features and are more stable, although there are some exceptions. In any event you should try to locate the web site for the companies that make the programs you use and to check for updates on occasion. Many programs have automatic update checking built in and will notify you if they detect an update, but you shouldn't rely on these mechanisms as they're often hidden or could possibly fail to function.

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"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt." --John Philpot Curran (Speeches. Dublin, 1808)


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