Critical Software Updates and the Windows Update Catalog I’m not a big fan of Microsoft’s methods for keeping systems current: manual visits to Windows Update or the Automatic Updates client. In both cases, the interactive analysis tool frequently recommends I install software that is either not appropriate or not required. Often, hotfixes won’t install, don’t correct the problem, or interfere with another OS component, thus introducing new bugs. To avoid these problems, I prefer to use the Windows Update catalog to research, download, and test updates before I deploy them to production systems. The catalog has one major limitation for legacy users: It doesn't publish hotfixes for Windows NT, and you can't access the catalog from an NT system. You can download NT updates from the main Windows Update page as long as you access the site from a Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, or Windows 98 system; you can't interact with Windows Update on an NT system.

Every time Microsoft releases a critical update, the company (theoretically) adds the fix to the Windows Update catalog. If you know how to use the catalog, you can selectively download security updates and other code fixes appropriate for your environment. You can access the catalog from the main Windows Update page (http://v4.windowsupdate.microsoft.com/en/default.asp); in the left pane, find the See Also category and click Windows Update Catalog. If you don't see this link, click Personalize Windows Update under Other Options, and check the box that enables display of the catalog link. Alternatively, you can connect directly to the catalog by using the link http://v4.windowsupdate.microsoft.com/catalog/en/default.asp. If you haven’t visited Windows Update recently, the site might prompt you to install the most recent ActiveX control. If prompted, you must install the control to ensure the site operates properly.

The catalog page lets you review downloads by OS and hardware type. When you click the OS option, the next page displays a list of platforms, preferred language, and a blue Advanced Search Options item. To reduce the number of updates you’ll need to scan, I recommend you click Advanced Search Options and limit the search options to one category, such as Critical Updates and Service Packs or Windows Tools. You can perform similar searches when you use the Find Driver Updates option. When you select the driver option, the catalog displays a list of hardware categories, such as audio, video, network cards, cameras, and printers. Within each hardware category, you can refine your search by entering the vendor and the model of the component.

Although this approach limits the number of items to review, the list that appears in each category can be overwhelming. Be sure you scan the items carefully because the catalog sometimes publishes obsolete hotfixes. When I selected Critical Updates and Service Packs for Win2K, the list contained 92 different fixes, several of which had release dates in 2001. To further narrow your search, you can ask the catalog to find only updates that match a search string that contains a security bulletin number, a Microsoft article number, or the title of an update.

The catalog automatically tracks software that you download and creates a permanent local copy of each fix in a multilevel directory structure. As a side effect of the multiple folder structure, each update's filename is excessively long, which makes working with the file from a command prompt clumsy and difficult. For example, when I downloaded the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.5 Service Pack 2 (SP2) security rollup, I entered the path e:\updates, and the download stored the hotfix executable in the directory path e:\updates\Software\en\W2KIE5.5X86\W2KSP2SRP1_5189\W2kSP2SRP1.exe. Although this obtuse directory structure might deter us from interfering with the semiautomatic update method, it's clumsy if you want to expand an update and examine the individual files before installing the fix. The log file wu_corp_v15.log contains a list of files the download transferred to the local system. The catalog also tracks files you download online; you can review your download history by clicking View Download History on the main catalog page.

Where to Find Noncritical Software Updates Windows Update and the catalog publish critical OS-specific patches and recent driver updates. If you can’t find the update you’re looking for at the main update page, or you’d rather download the file you want without interacting with Windows Update, try the product specific links below. If you still can’t locate the desired update, try the generic Microsoft Download Center at the last link in this list.

XP Home Edition
http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/home/downloads/default.asp

XP Professional Edition
http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/downloads/default.asp

Win2K Professional and Win2K Server
http://www.microsoft.com/windows2000/downloads/default.asp

Win2K Datacenter
http://www.microsoft.com/windows2000/datacenter/security

NT Server
http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/nts/downloads/default.asp

NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition (WTS)
http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/terminalserver/downloads/default.asp

IE
http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/downloads/default.asp

Windows Media Player
http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/download/default.asp

Online Microsoft Office Updates
http://office.microsoft.com/productupdates

Downloadable Microsoft Office Updates
http://office.microsoft.com/downloads/default.aspx?product=office&version=2002&type=update

Microsoft Download Center
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/search.asp?