The Windows update dictionary Microsoft never wrote

With cumulative updates, monthly rollup updates, preview quality updates and more, Microsoft’s Windows update terminology is nearly indecipherable. We’re here to help.

Microsoft Windows update arrows on laptop and mobile phone
Microsoft / IDG

All it took was one question. One question of 26 asked by Microsoft in a survey about experiences with Windows Update. That one question encapsulated the struggle Windows users deal with in updating and upgrading the operating system.

What types of updates do you install? (Check all that apply.)

That was the question. Microsoft offered five possible responses.

win10 update types IDG

Microsoft's questionnaire asked participants to choose the types of updates they installed. But it didn't bother to define those choices.

Five. Possible. Responses.

Since Windows 10's introduction nearly four years ago, Microsoft has multiplied not only the number of updates — raising feature-changing upgrades by a factor of six, for instance — but has also increased the kinds of updates.

Where once there was but a single kind of update, the kind that showed up each second Tuesday to patch vulnerabilities, now there are multiples, enough that Microsoft has come to label some with letters of the alphabet. Yet understanding the updates, knowing what is which and what for, is more important than ever, even if Microsoft doesn't pause to explain the differences.

You need an update dictionary.

We'll try our best to put some meat on the terminology bones, but honestly, Microsoft's lexicon is so obtuse, so confusing, so contradictory, so... well, we gave it a shot. We'll update — pun unintended — as necessary.

Cumulative updates

Microsoft defines "cumulative update" both as a collection of fixes — as when it describes it as something "in which many fixes to improve the quality and security of Windows are packaged into a single update" — and as an all-encompassing update that includes not only the latest changes but also all those from that product's past. "Each cumulative update includes the changes and fixes from all previous updates" is how Microsoft explains it.

Not surprisingly, the two definitions overlap, but Microsoft's explainers have stressed one over the other when that's suited them. When Microsoft added Windows 7 to the we're-now-doing-cumulative-updates list, raising Cain among users who for decades could pick and choose which fixes to apply, the firm told them patching was now an all-or-nothing affair, emphasizing the "packaged into a single update" definition.

The old way of patching "resulted in fragmentation, where different PCs could have a different set of updates installed, leading to multiple potential problems," said a Microsoft product marketing manager in 2016 as he announced the change.

But the two broader definitions of "cumulative" were not what Microsoft was asking about in the survey. Instead, it was after feedback for "Cumulative," with a capital "C," in the questionnaire.

In the Windows Update Catalog — an official distribution portal for all updates — "Cumulative" applies only to certain updates for Windows 10 and various server products, including Windows Server 2019 and Server 2016. They're typically distributed several times each month and always contain what Microsoft terms "quality improvements," which is fancy-talk for bug fixes. They sometimes include security patches for Windows vulnerabilities.

Cumulative is a label Microsoft plasters on a lot of updates. The 64-bit version of Windows 10 1809, last year's troubled (and that's an understatement) feature upgrade, has been served six Cumulative updates so far this year, one each in February and April, and two each in January and March.

win10 cumulative updates list IDG

Windows 10 version 1809 has been served with half a dozen cumulative updates so far this year. Some include patches for security vulnerabilities, some don't.

Security-only updates

Also called "security-only quality update" (and no, we're not making this stuff up), these updates contain just one month's worth of security fixes for a single product — say, Windows 7.

Microsoft's official definition reads, in part, "an update that collects all the new security updates for a given month and for a given product, addressing security-related vulnerabilities and distributed through Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and Microsoft Update Catalog."

What the description doesn't tell users is that, as far as we're able to tell, it's used only with the older OSes, Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, and their Windows Server companions, Server 2008 and Server 2012. Microsoft doesn't assign the term to any Windows 10 updates.

Security-only updates are distributed on Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of each month, a day Microsoft prefers everyone dub "Update Tuesday," as if the word "patch" was objectionable. Because distribution is restricted to WSUS and SCCM (with the latter using the Update Catalog), and not via the consumer-grade Windows Update, security-only updates target businesses which want to plug security holes and that's it.

Security-only updates are one of the few non-cumulative updates that Microsoft still distributes; skip one and multiple vulnerabilities will remain unpatched.

This update class garnered the most attention when applied to Windows 7 three years ago, as it gave IT administrators a bit of the flexibility that had been stripped from them previously when Microsoft mandated cumulative updates.

Note: "Security-only" does not necessarily mean "All security." Since early 2017, Microsoft has omitted security patches for Internet Explorer from the security-only updates issued to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Instead, they're distributed in their own, IE-only, cumulative update each month that a browser patch is required. Microsoft's rationale: Customers wanted smaller updates, and this was one way to accomplish that, the company said. However, Computerworld concluded that only those not running IE would realize size savings; the decision was an acknowledgement that Windows 7 and 8.1 customers had dumped IE.

Monthly rollup updates

Slapped with the officious label "Security Monthly Quality Update" in the Microsoft Update Catalog, these are the Oliver Hardy to the security-updates' Stan Laurel. Jack Sprat's wife to Jack himself.

Not only do the monthly rollups include both security and non-security bug fixes, but unlike security-only updates, they're cumulative in that each includes the totality of past updates. So not surprisingly, they're significantly larger than the same month's security-only update.

Microsoft defines them as "a tested, cumulative set of updates" — making one wonder what updates weren't tested — that are distributed via Windows Update, WSUS, SCCM and the Update Catalog.

Like "security-only," the term "monthly rollup" (even Microsoft rarely deploys the mouthful "Security Monthly Quality Update" outside of Windows Update and the Update Catalog) is for older OSes only: Windows 7 and Server 2008, Windows 8.1 and Server 2012. We weren't able to find any instance of the name assigned to a Windows 10 update. (The term is used, though, to describe .NET updates suitable for Windows 10, so there's that.) Microsoft issues monthly rollups on Patch Tuesday.

Even though Microsoft doesn't use the "monthly rollup" designation in Windows 10, that's essentially what "cumulative updates" are. Like monthly rollups, cumulatives include security and non-security bug fixes and contain all past adjustments, too.

Side note: "Rollup" is a term Microsoft has used for decades to label catch-up updates, those that bring a program or operating system up to current status by bundling all past fixes. (Usually from a specific point in time — say, the last major release. These were once called "service packs" and abbreviated to "SP," as in "SP1" to designate the first such collection.) It's unclear why Microsoft repurposed the moniker for something that was not a catch-up, but a constant series instead.

Preview quality updates

Also known as "Preview of Monthly Quality Rollups," these hybrid updates are a combination of old and new, as in brand new, as in "preview" new.

That label marks the update, which is generally distributed the third week of the month, almost always the third Tuesday, as one containing early looks at fixes that Microsoft has crafted for next month's non-security issues.

Here's how the company defines preview quality updates: "The Preview of Monthly Rollup ... addresses new non-security updates and includes fixes from the latest Monthly Rollup."

The non-security bug fixes bundled with the preview are those Microsoft intends to include in final form in the following month's Patch Tuesday rollup. The preview is also cumulative, in that it contains all previous monthly rollups for the targeted product, such as Windows 7.

According to Microsoft, it offers the preview monthly rollups so customers can complete "early deployment of the new reliability fixes before they are included in the next Monthly Rollup" and give customers "visibility and testing of the planned non-security fixes targeted for the next month's Update Tuesday release."

In plain English, the previews largely exist so that customers can help test the next month's non-security bug fixes, yet another example of the years-long trend of Microsoft shifting quality control testing to users. The previews, when labeled as such — including the "Preview of Monthly Quality Rollups" — are a Windows 7/8.1- and Windows Server 2008/2012-only term.

It's not that Windows 10 doesn't serve previews to customers. It's just that Microsoft doesn't tag them with a clear nameplate. Instead, they're simply another cumulative update, albeit one released on the third or even fourth Tuesday of the month. Microsoft has referred to these Windows 10 updates as its "C" and "D" releases — to mark them as third- (as in C) and fourth-week (D) deliveries.

Don't bother looking for the alphabetical markers or "Preview quality updates" in WSUS or Windows Update or the Update Catalog, however. And that's a problem.

"Would it be possible to add the naming 'Preview' to these D week releases so that there is consistency between the Windows 7 update naming and Windows 10 for these D week releases?" asked one commenter in a Microsoft post of September 2018 that described Windows 10's update tempo.

Microsoft has yet to address that reasonable request.

Twice-yearly feature updates

While the twice-annual updates that add new features and functionality to Windows 10 are the least frequently released of any of the five categories, ironically they're the sturdiest in definition. Few Windows 10 users question what they are: The regularly paced refreshes that replaced the once-every-three-years-or-so upgrade from one Windows OS to the next, a practice Microsoft pitched for decades.

(Side note: Here at Computerworld, the term "feature upgrade" is often the substitute for Microsoft's "feature update." It's not that we're in the Windows dictionary business, but the twice-annual releases are more substantial and significant than the run-of-the-mill "update," and so should be marked as such. The term "upgrade" has long been that marker.)

These are the updates identified with a four-digit number, as in 1809 or 1903, in the yymm format of their targeted completion date. On the client side, they are, as said, Windows 10-only; older versions of Windows — what Microsoft likes to call "down-level operating systems" — do not see these.

But although there's little confusion about what a feature update is, there's plenty about almost everything else. Take this example: Last year, Microsoft split the two-times-a-year updates into two classes. Enterprises got 30 months of support for each year's fall update (12 months more than the standard 18 months). But Microsoft has yet to identify this new premier-class in the updates' naming. Why not?

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