Microsoft has made good on its promise for the mid-2005 availability of the new Microsoft Update service. Microsoft Update replaces the existing Windows Update and provides updates and patches for everything that Windows Update did, plus adds update services for several other Microsoft applications, all at one Web site.

Available from http://www.microsoft.com/technet/prodtechnol/microsoftupdate/default.mspx , Microsoft Update is a handy service for Windows users as well as users of other Microsoft products. High-priority updates for regularly updated Microsoft applications (currently Microsoft Office, Microsoft Exchange Server, and Microsoft SQL Server) will now receive the same treatment as updates for the base OS. Microsoft Update works with Automatic Updates and will use the updating methodology that you've enabled for Automatic Updates. Therefore, be sure to configure Automatic Updates to at least download updates and alert you, if not automatically install them.

It's important to note that the application updates that Microsoft Update will apply must be flagged as "high priority." It won't provide the minor feature upgrades and changes that applications such as Office often receive; you still need to periodically update applications manually to get those types of upgrades. For example, to receive optional Office feature upgrades or add-ons such as templates and clip art, you'll need to use the updater at Office Online ( http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/officeupdate/default.aspx ). But with Microsoft's stated goal of improving security and reliability, you can be sure that the company will label updates related to those goals with sufficient priority to ensure that they're automatically provided to end users.

A quick check of my primary system, which I'm careful to keep updated, showed no high-priority updates available. However, two software updates (Windows Media Connect and an updated HighMAT driver) along with a hardware update for my monitors are available, so I still need to download and install these updates manually.

Microsoft Update runs on Windows Server 2003, Windows XP, and Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 (SP3) and later. It provides automatic updates to those OSs, Office XP and later, Exchange Server 2000 and later, and SQL Server 2000 with SP4 and later.

If you choose to remove Microsoft Update, your computer will revert to the existing Automatic Updates version that came with the OS. And regardless, you still need to check for minor updates to supported applications, as well as updates for Microsoft applications not covered by the Microsoft Update service. The existing Windows Update site ( http://update.microsoft.com ) will still be available for the foreseeable future, although the site already suggests that users upgrade to the new Microsoft Update. That's a good idea, especially if you use the other supported Microsoft applications.

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