Michal Kohutek
Artist's rendering of well known sight.

Man versus Windows Update

There are several fully usable operating systems available. Some are more practical, some are less practical, but no matter which one suits best, living completely without Windows is difficult. Many devices have Windows-only drivers. Many useful programs are available only on Windows. Most video games are Windows-only, no matter what Steam does. And so, at least occasionally switching to Windows is a must.

It used to be fine in the times of yore, but in this era of Windows 10, the world have changed. While Windows 10 has plenty of useful features, like grouping windows into workspaces or allowing to set sound volume independently for speakers and earphones (not that they weren’t in other operating systems since time immemorial), it also has one new feature that is unbelievably infuriating.

Artist's rendering of well known sight.
Artist’s rendering of well known sight.

It is, as everyone bloody knows, Windows Update. It takes away everything you ever loved. That nasty thing that decides when you are going to use your computer, when your programs are force exited, when your computer awakens from suspend and never goes back and when your programs stop working. It even wantonly installs Candy Crush on your PC (not kidding). Microsoft has already made it clear that it intends to annoy everyone with it no matter what you think, but I am more and more surprised how far are they willing to go.

The pain

While most operating systems can update without restart unless the changes are really large and some can even update kernel without restarting, Windows will restart after every update. This is particularly lovely with a dozen of open windows, some of them being consoles traversed to particular locations and interesting stuff in histories. It tries to reopen some programs to conceal what it has done, but only those that are trivial to reopen like Firefox. It becomes particularly damaging when the computer running Windows 10 is controlling a larger machine and the restart screws up the whole process (another OS often isn’t an option because many device drivers are Windows-only).

Windows also turns out to be an insomniac and starts updating while the computer is sleeping. It will awaken from sleep unbidden, do its stuff and remain running. It’s particularly lovely if someone is sleeping in the room when the screen turns on and the fans start buzzing.

If Windows is booted only occasionally as it’s meant to be, it happens that Windows installs a load of updates and requires the user to wait for an hour before it boots, denying the computer to everyone (a forced interruption can break it).

These things can be, in some cases tolerable. But these updates break stuff. They install newer drivers that stop supporting older devices. They break compatibility of legacy programs. These can usually be rolled back, but most users won’t figure out the exact cause. So even a very patient grandmother who only browses the Internet will be eventually driven to an aneurysm.

Collaborating with the Enemy

Some more expensive versions of Windows 10 used to allow disabling Windows Update. So they wanted people to pay to control their own computer. Later, even that was disabled.

Another legitimate option is to lie and mark the network as metered. Apparently, Windows has the basic decency not to have the user pay for the bandwidth it uses. However, other programs may needlessly save bandwidth and it won’t help much when using a laptop and moving across many locations with various wireless networks.

metered network
Setting a network as metered. It can be set for specific networks in the list of available connections

It is also possible to set working hours when the updates will not disturb the user. It allows little flexibility, especially for playing video games at random times of day (one of the main uses of Windows, dammit), plus it doesn’t allow keeping work open for the next day.

We’re not gonna take it: The War

Now, when Microsoft wants to control every computer using Windows, it’s time to fight back. Microsoft doesn’t own the computer, so it has no right to decide what is being done.

Windows Update is a service. Services can be turned on and off, because, well, Windows is an operating system intended to be used by professionals and administrators should have more advanced control over the system. So disabling the service from starting prevents any updates from taking place, no? Lucky are the people who never tried to update Windows later.

That trick worked for a while, but then Microsoft decided that people had too much liberty or whatever. So they started the war by creating a program called Windows Update Assistant. It, as its name suggests, assists people at doing the thing they really don’t want to do. It is that kind of friend who helps you get over all the obstacles that something, definitely not you, have made in your plan to take a bath in sulphuric acid. It makes diagnostics why Windows Update has failed and if it finds the cause, the problem is brought back fixed.

There was a time when it was possible to have Windows Update run under an account with insufficient rights to update the system and fail. Then the beloved helpful Assistant got improved to deal with that issue as well.

So, in order to deal with this problem, it became necessary to summon Beelzebub. No, I made up this part.

Windows Update Assistant
At some point, it was possible to uninstall Windows Update Assistant

For a short while, the Assistant could be uninstalled. But Microsoft soon found its mistake and fixed it. Windows Update Assistant is now a part of the operating system. Nobody would ever want to get rid of that awesome guardian angel, right?

Now, it is again necessary to create errors that Assistant doesn’t yet know how to fix. The updates are triggered by a task that is called periodically. The task can be deleted or damaged in some other way that it would not run. This trick even allowed running Windows Update while actually intending to run it, but it exposed the computer to new improvements of the dreadful Assistant.

And the improvements were sneaked in. Now, the Windows Update tasks cannot be disabled, not even by the Administrator, because it’s owned by Trusted Installer, a user with greater rights than Zeus, Stalin or Chuck Norris have. However, all those tasks (just to be sure, there are many tasks to check for all kinds of occasions when Windows Update could start) activate a single program, Windows Update Orchestrator. It is a file. A file on a file system. There are several ways to get rid of that program from the deepest circle of hell where only developers of pay2win games dwell. An obvious solution is to boot up another OS, possibly from an USB stick, and replace it with a folder. A faster way is to use Windows’ program takeown to change its owner. Apparently, administrators can change ownership even of files owned by this Trusted Installer entity. Then, when owned by the administrator, it’s possible to give no rights to no user.

Trusted Installer
Administrator rights are no longer sufficient to modify files related to Windows Update (sorry for the altered formatting, the original image wasn’t in English.

This is what works at the moment. It’s very likely that another update will allow Windows Update Assistant to resolve this as well and some other trick will be needed.

An alternative that always works

One issue that Windows Update Assistant cannot fix is insufficient disk space. If there is a larger update, Windows Update may be unable to download it to drive C: and will give up. With a 128 GiB SSD that some laptops have, this will happen sooner or later. Otherwise, it’s only trying to download to its system partition, so having a small system partition and moving everything else that can be moved to other partitions will prevent it. At the moment. The size of its hibernation file can also be adjusted to a variety of sizes in order to fine tune this process. So far, Microsoft doesn’t give free larger disks for its users.

A disadvantage of this approach is that often it has to be taken care of already when installing, can be sometimes limiting when installing software and worst of all, it shows a window with an error message when the system starts up (but only then). It is incapable to deal with it, so as a payback, it will occasionally awaken the computer from sleep and do nothing.

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