I have a rating system that lets individual Microsoft consumers know when it’s safe to install patches. I call it the Microsoft Patch Defense Condition Level, or MS-DEFCON for short. It’s modeled after the US armed forces DEFCON system.
MS-DEFCON 1: Current Microsoft patches are causing havoc. Don’t patch.
MS-DEFCON 2: Patch reliability is unclear. Unless you have an immediate, pressing need to install a specific patch, don’t do it.
MS-DEFCON 3: Patch reliability is unclear, but widespread attacks make patching prudent. Go ahead and patch, but watch out for potential problems.
MS-DEFCON 4: There are isolated problems with current patches, but they are well-known and documented here. Check this site to see if you’re affected and if things look OK, go ahead and patch.
MS-DEFCON 5: All’s clear. Patch while it’s safe.
The MS-DEFCON system assumes that you have your Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 firewall turned on, that you’re using an up-to-date antivirus program (I use Microsoft Security Essentials, which is free, and I vastly prefer it to the giant expensive AV packages) and some form of hardware protection, like almost any router.
The MS-DEFCON level also assumes that you’re using Firefox or Chrome, not Internet Explorer. If you use Internet Explorer, you need to be more cautious about installing those massive IE updates.
I firmly believe that Microsoft’s Automatic Update is for chumps, and I’ve said so for years: go ahead and let Microsoft notify you when it wants to install something on your computer, but don’t blindly allow the ‘Softies to install whatever they want. Follow the instructions on the next tab to set Windows to “Notify but don’t download” its patches.
In general, I apply Outlook Junk E-mail Filter updates as soon as they’re available. Why? Microsoft hasn’t screwed up any of them too badly – and the one bad Junk E-mail Filter update was patched quickly. You’re better off applying those updates than letting them slide for a week or two.
You should also apply Microsoft Security Essentials updates as soon as they’re available. That usually happens automatically, no matter what your Automatic Updates setting.
Many of you have written asking about non-critical updates that are offered by Windows Update, Office Update, and/or Microsoft Update. Unless you have an immediate, painful, obvious reason to install one of them immediately, I’d avoid them like the plague. Microsoft has really screwed up several hardware patches, in particular. Don’t trust Microsoft to deliver hardware updates; go to the hardware manufacturer’s site and install them manually. If your computer stops working, you only have yourself to blame!
For advice on updating non-Microsoft software, I recommend Secunia’s free-for-personal-use Personal Software Inspector.