Why are we still having these issues?
I fucking hate Windows Update. Of all the services that run Windows these days, Windows Update has to be the least reliable of the lot. It’s fucking awful and it’s always been awful. It seems like just about every major update causes Windows Update to promptly shit the bed and stop working properly.
If you Google for “Windows Update Problems” or “Windows Update Fails” you’ll find lots of hits. Many of them come from the Microsoft Support Forums, which have some of the most useless support staff I’ve ever seen. Typical exchanges go like this:
User: “Hi I have (error code) with (system) and it does (detailed list of issues). I’ve tried (lots of steps). Any ideas?”
Useless Support: “What version of Windows are you running? Does your system manufacturer support Windows 10 and the new update? Please post your system configuration here.”
User: “It’s a home built system with (specs).”
Useless Support: (Regurgitates some pointless generic steps that fix nothing and do nothing except generate version numbers that they don’t read.)
My latest battle has been with the Creator’s Update, which is effectively a repeat of the nightmare I had trying to get regular updates to push through! Typical behaviour is as follows:
- Windows downloads the updates
- A reboot occurs
- The updates appear to install, but then on the second reboot it rolls them back, and reboots again
- Windows Update either fails to write an error code to the log, or it writes a generic one that could be literally anything
- Go back to step 1
The worst part of the entire exercise is that sometimes updates will fail to install, but you’ll never be notified. When checking the install log, I found one of the many cumulative updates from April 2017 had failed to install several times, but not once did it give an error message or alert me to a problem. And so far as I can see, it never did successfully install – in fact, it seems like WUpdate just gave up and stopped trying.
The typical fix for these problems involves one of two steps:
- Try to use the Windows Update Tool to clear out the update cache and restart the services
- Format and reinstall from an updated ISO
So basically, hope for the best or start again.
I can remember the nightmares around Windows XP SP2 – I had to do a full reinstall because it just wouldn’t update properly for love or for money. But Windows 7 and even Windows 8 were largely stable with their automatic updating. Windows 10? It’s fucking atrocious. The updater service is incredibly unstable and will fuck up at the drop of a hat – except it won’t tell you what’s wrong or even write useful log entries to help trace the problem. It’s no wonder that many users give up and just go the nuclear route and start again… only for the problem to come back later on!
The last time I had this issue, I couldn’t get Windows 10 to go past a particular build number no matter what I did. It just would not update and would not log a reason for why. It kept rolling back, again and again, in an infinite loop of download-apply-fail-rollback. Also fun: updates getting stuck at an arbitrary percentage with no indication of what it’s actually doing.
I think this represents a fundamental failure of feedback when it comes to software. Back in the 90s or early 2000s, software installers or updaters would often tell you a lot more about what they were actually doing at the time – usually what file it was actually working on, or a sort of description of what it was doing at that moment. This could at least give you a starting point to help identify where the issue might be – if it got stuck on a particular file, you might assume that the file in question had an issue. But now in an attempt to be ‘consumer friendly’ that information is hidden.
But it doesn’t have to be hidden. A user who doesn’t know what it means and isn’t interested in it could just ignore it (and probably already does). For someone who is trying to troubleshoot an issue, that information is useful – and hiding it away behind a totally useless percentage progress indicator isn’t helping anybody.
All that said, all I want is for Windows Update to do the following:
- Actually update reliably
- Tell me when it fails
- Tell me why it fails
Until then, I’m stuck on an older build with no way to progress except to reinstall – something I’m looking at doing with every major build. For fuck’s sake Microsoft, we’re supposed to have put this “format every 12 months” shite behind us.
An Update – How I (didn’t) Fix It
Allow me to illustrate the infuriating past few hours I’ve spent trying to fix the issue. For reference, my machine is an ASUS Strix GL502VS laptop. It has a recovery partition designed to restore a Windows 10 install along with some Asus bullshit (none of the bullshit that’s actually useful though). Last time I had an issue with Windows Update, I simply restored from this image and all was well. This time? Nope!
Fortunately, before I went much further, I decided to use the Media Creation Tool and a 16GB USB 3.0 flash drive to create a Windows 10 installer. You can use any flash drive larger than 4GB. When you boot to the USB drive, it’ll start the installer (and it’s way faster than using a DVD). It also uses the latest version of Windows 10 (so that includes the Creators Update), effectively bypassing any WU issues.
But I didn’t do that at first, because I assumed I could still fix it. I tried using sfc /scannow and even DISM failed – they would both hang and refuse to go any further. “Whatever,” I thought, “I’ll just blow away the install and restore from an image.”
This did… absolutely nothing. The exact same symptoms appeared. Now was the time to use the media creation tool! I popped in my USB drive, rebooted and started the installer. Initially I installed it to the same partition but had to remove the original Windows install into Windows.Old – this is done by selecting the partition your current Windows version is installed on and copies the contents of the Users, Program Files and Windows directories into Windows.old for later retrieval. Usually this works perfectly fine – you get a fresh install of Windows while keeping those folders in case you forget something.
But not this time, because it took a dump over the bootloader. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t even understand how it happened. When it rebooted after the installer, the bootloader appeared to be corrupted and couldn’t find any entries. On every second boot though it worked perfectly fine. A system that requires two fucking boots to work isn’t functional, so I went back, formatted and deleted the partitions, and reinstalled fresh. I left the RECOVERY partition though – I typically don’t touch these partitions without a good reason.
This time it worked. I had a fresh, totally up to date install of Windows 10 that wasn’t using the built-in Asus image. Whether or not there was something wrong with that image, or something that had subsequently been installed is unknown. Why the bootloader shat the bed and refused to work is another mystery. But this was the only way I could get it to work – to wipe out the partitions and start totally from scratch.
This is a shitty solution that shouldn’t exist anymore. Even on DisCONNECT, reading back, I can see that I had issues with Windows 7 and SP1 and resorted to a work around to get it to install properly. I can’t recall having any major issues with Windows 8, except for the fact that it’s Windows 8.
Part of this highlights a big issue with being a PC gamer though. Throughout this hours-long process, all I really wanted to do was sit down and play some Prey – but it’s hard to do that and ignore problems when you’re not getting security updates for your operating system. The “fix” ends up being a complete pain in the arse – and if you’re not diligent you can easily wipe your saved games too. Throughout the whole process, I found myself thinking “If I got this on PS4, I’d just be playing the fucking game right about now.”
And yeah, that’s true. It would be in 30FPS with worse visual fidelity, but I’d be playing it. Sometimes, PC gaming is a total bitch.