A new study has concluded that Windows 10’s forced reboots are a bad idea

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If you’re using Windows 10 Home and have been keeping up with your updates, you’ll have no doubt run into the scenario where an important update is pending, but you’re in the middle of your work. Windows 10 chimes a notification in your tray that says it has to reboot now-now, and will generally enforce this with a reboot if necessary. For the last few years Windows users have been trying desperately to stop this from happening, and Microsoft has not relented on their decision to force these updates on their users. A study conducted at University College London now says that forced updates on Windows 10 Home users are generally bad.

A new study has concluded that Windows 10's forced reboots are a bad idea 4

The study, titled “In Control with no Control: Perceptions and Reality of Windows 10 Home Edition Update Features” by Morris, Becker, and Parkin, goes in depth about how Windows 10 Home generally behaves when it comes to updates for both security patches and new features. The study of 93 Windows 10 Home users found that almost all the users had patterns of use that didn’t conform to Microsoft’s Active Hours feature, and 28% of users didn’t know Active Hours was a setting they could alter. Almost half of all participants in the survey indicated that they actively checked for updates manually to make sure their computer was up to date and that bugs were fixed (last year, Microsoft admitted that it pushed untested updates to Windows 10 users who actively checked for updates as part of a program to release these updates timeously and not as part of a monthly cumulative update).

The study also details why Windows 10 Home was the target and not Pro or Education, two versions which would feature more heavily in a university environment. When an update to Windows 10 Home is downloaded, a timer starts ticking down to 24 hours, and forces a reboot when the timer is finished. In the past, Windows 7 used to do similar things by default but it would also by default only check for and install updates at 3AM in the morning local time. Windows 10 Home checks for updates by the hour, and once the timer is set it can not be cancelled or halted. You’re stuck with it.

The study also ran a Windows 10 Home installation inside a virtual machine, and ran several experiments to determine why and how the machine would reboot forcefully. The result is this complex maze of questions that Windows goes through before the reboot is enacted:

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If you actually stopped to read through them all, you may have seen one path that stood out from the rest. If there is a quality update (read: security patch) available, the OS is programmed to offer the user the chance to schedule the update. If no action is taken when this pop-up is shown, the OS then asks itself if the computer is currently in use. If it is, it prompts the user with more choices. If you’re not at your desk at that point, it will forcefully install the update and reboot the system. This is why using the Metered Network setting for your Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection doesn’t always work, because a quality update that requires a reboot will still trigger a reboot with the right conditions.

The study then goes on to highlight two problem areas with this approach that they mapped out in their experiments. One was that Microsoft relied on keyboard and mouse input to determine if the user was at their computer. If you’ve ever had your lock screen come on while watching video, you’ll know why that is; Windows does not consider a full-screen video playing on the desktop to be “using the computer”. That’s why Windows Media Player has a toggle to stop the computer going into sleep mode if you were watching a video full-screen.

Similarly, videogames take inputs directly, and the operating system does not distinguish whether or not a full-screen application like a videogame counts as using the computer. There are some well-known clips of Twitch streamers having their PC reboot in the middle of a match, which should have never happened because they were clearly providing input and using their computers.

Microsoft also made changes recently that will prevent users from disabling the Windows Update service entirely. Even if you disable Windows Update and the Update orchestrator services, the operating system can re-enable them at any time without warning.

The authors note that Microsoft has a patent relating to detecting use of the computer before an update initiates a reboot, but their own testing determined that this feature did not work. Even if the notification says it would remind the user, it still rebooted forcefully after the user selected another time in the next week to install the update inside their active hours. Windows does not warn the user of the possibility of losing valuable work and time.

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The other major problem area is that users who have an established workflow have to restart that workflow if an update and reboot is forced on them. They have to restart their applications and get back to what they were doing. In the case of users that rely on Microsoft’s Office 365 suite, that’s not a major problem because all documents are automatically saved anyway.

If the user has any other use for the machine, however, like Photoshop, Blender rendering, KDEnlive video editing, or programming in an IDE with many different plugins and programs loaded to support their work, that takes time to rebuild. In this regard, the study’s authors suggest that Windows needs to offer the option to automatically takes snapshots of the system state and offer a roll-back to that state if the update required a reboot or resulted in corrupted data.

Personally, my recommendation is that if you’re a Windows 10 Home user, spend the extra money to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. You get a lot more control over updates and how they affect you, and you can rest easier because there are more controls available through Group Policy that dictate system behaviour. Alternatively, if your needs don’t hinge on Microsoft’s ecosystem you can also run Linux. In the past month, I’ve only had to reboot once for a kernel update.

Last Updated: March 4, 2019

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