The Best Tools to Check for Software Updates

During the early days of Windows, the operating system was the direct target of most malware creators and Microsoft has worked a lot on hardening the operating system, creating and delivering security patches to its users as timely as they possibly could. Today, Windows is a more secure operating system and the malware creators’ focus is now on finding and using vulnerabilities for popular Windows applications. Therefore, keeping your applications up-to-date has become very important for having a secure computing experience. But... how do you keep your applications up-to-date, without manually searching for updates once very few weeks? This analysis aims to answer this question and propose some good tools for this task.

NOTE: This article has been updated based on feedback received from users and the developers of some of the applications included in my tests.

Software Update Checkers Being Tested

Even though there are plenty of options available, I did my best to pick a mix that includes both popular and efficient programs in this niche. I ended up testing the following applications: Appudater 1.5, CNET TechTracker 2.1.0, FileHippo Update Checker 1.038, Ninite Updater, Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) 2.0, Software Informer Client 1.1 and Software Update Monitor (SUMO) 2.17.

Applications Used for Testing

In order to test the effectiveness of the products that are meant to keep our applications up-to-date, I chose a mix of popular software used for the most common computing tasks: 7-Zip 9.14 (64-bit edition), Adobe Reader 10.0.0, Adobe Flash Player 11.0.1.152, CCleaner 3.10.1525, Oracle Java 7.0.0, Winamp 5.6, K-lite Codec Pack Full 7.0.0, Adobe Shockwave Player 11.5, Mozilla Thunderbird 10 beta, PDF Creator 1.0.2, Virtual CloneDrive 5.4.3.2, Ashampoo Burning Studio 9.9.20, MiniTool Partition Wizard Home Edition 7.0, FileZilla 3.4.0, LibreOffice 3.4.302, Mozilla Firefox 8.0.1, VirtualBox 4.0.0.69151.

As you can see, the versions being used are not the latest available for each application.

I made sure to include some of the most vulnerable software for Windows: Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Shockwave Player and Oracle Java. Using software that helps keep up-to-date applications which are frequent targets for malware creators and distributors is very important to having and keeping a secure system.

The Testing Procedure

First, I installed all the applications used for testing and then the applications being tested. Before testing, I created a system restore point, to make sure I could revert back my system when needed.

Each of the applications were evaluated against the following criteria:

  • How many application updates each program detected for the 18 applications used for testing.
  • How many application updates each program detected for the 4 most vulnerable Windows applications I mentioned in the previous section.
  • If the programs are able to run during the Windows startup and scan for updates automatically.
  • If the programs are able to make automated downloads of the updates they identified.
  • If they are able to automatically install the updates they identified.
  • If they allow the user to add custom locations to scan for installed applications.

Important Things to Consider

My tests revealed some important findings about how these applications perform:

  • Checking for updates is done against a list of programs that is being actively maintained by the developers of each program. Updating this list on a continuous basis involves a lot of effort. This means that there is no program able to detect updates for all the applications you have installed on your computer.
  • In theory, if a program is provided by a large website with downloads for almost every piece of software you can think of, it should have the biggest update detection rate. However, this is not the case.
  • Most vendors will try to monetize their applications either by bundling unwanted software (such as toolbars) with their setup programs, or by making you download updates from websites with lots of ads. Therefore, it is very important that you pay attention during the installation process.
  • Most programs can only notify you of updates. Very few have features for downloading and installing updates automatically.
  • No free application is able to automatically install updates for all applications. There will always be exceptions for which you need to make manual installations. The most common example of an application requiring manual update installations is Adobe Reader.
  • When choosing to make automated installations of updates (in the applications that provide this feature), pay attention to the applications for which you allow this. You will get silent installations using the default options. This means that, you can get additional unwanted software installed on your computer, together with the update. It is best to use this feature only for applications which do not bundle things you do not want.

Checking for Software Updates - The Test Experience!

Let’s take each piece of software one by one:

  • Appudater - is a personal project maintained by an enthusiast. In order to keep things manageable for one person, Appudater uses a small list of free applications to keep track of updates. Anything that is not included in this list, is simply ignored by Appudater. If you happen to use many of the applications it keeps track of, Appudater is a reasonable choice, as it provides support for automated download and installation of updates. However, the automated installation works only for some applications. For example, if you are trying to update Adobe Reader, you need to make a manual installation, after the download is completed by Appudater.

    Appupdater

    One aspect I found worrying is that Appudater had weak results even for some applications included in its watchlist. For example, it was not able to detect updates for 7-Zip, Java, Thunderbird and Winamp, even though these applications are found in the official list of Supported Applications.

  • CNET TechTracker - CNET aims to provide some of the most complete functionality for keeping applications up-to-date. However, before you install the tool, I highly recommend you to create an account on the CNET website and activate it. Then, install the tool and pay attention so that you do not install some of the unwanted software and changes bundled with it. Once you get through these hoops, you can enjoy the features provided by TechTracker. If you do not create an account first, you cannot use everything it offers and you will get errors about requiring TechTracker Plus, which is a piece of software that does not exist at this time. It only means you need a free CNET account.

    You can enjoy automated downloads for all the updates being detected and automated installations for most of them. However, be careful when using the SmartInstall feature, so that you don’t also get applications and changes you do not want. Once I got it to work, I enjoyed using TechTracker. All its functions worked as expected and I had little trouble in getting my applications updated.

    TechTracker

    However, I was not impressed with how many updates it detected. Considering how big CNET is and how many applications it offers for download, it detected fewer updates than I expected: 10 from a total of 18 and only one of the 4 most vulnerable applications. Another downside I noticed was the fact that it does not identify codec packs very well. For example, it counted my K-lite Codec Pack Full twice, once also as being K-Lite Mega Codec Pack, which is not the same thing.

  • FileHippo Update Checker - is small and lightweight application. Its only feature is to scan and detect updates. It does not handle downloads and installations for you. For each update, you get the download page and the rest is for you to handle. Just like CNET TechTracker it detected fewer updates than I expected, considering how large FileHippo’s application database is. However, I did appreciate the fact that it provides updates for all of the most vulnerable Windows applications.

    FileHippo Update Checker

    Some of the things that make it stand out are: it can show beta versions available for your applications, allows you to add custom locations to scan for applications and updates, and it can be set to close itself when no updates are found, thus freeing the few resources it uses.

  • Ninite Updater - has been covered more extensively in a separate article. More details about it can be found here: How to Keep Applications Up-to-date with Ninite Updater & Ninite Free.

    Ninite Updater

  • Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) - is very focused on security. Therefore, unlike other programs I tested, it will look for updates to some of your computer’s drivers, run-times such as Microsoft Visual C++ Redistributables and evaluate the state of your Windows updates. Its scanning process is the longest of all but, at the end of it, you get a useful view of how up-to-date with security patches your system is. You can also compare your results with the average score of the Secunia user community. Due to its focus on security, Secunia chooses to monitor important updates mostly for software that is recognized as being less secure or generally targeted by malware. As a result, it detected updates for less than half of the applications I installed. However, it covered very well the four most vulnerable applications I installed.

    Secunia PSI

    Secunia PSI offers automated downloads and installs for some drivers or Windows updates, but not for regular applications. In most cases, you need to make the downloads and installations manually, using the direct links provided by the program. Regarding custom scan locations, you can only select extra partitions and drives you would like the tool to scan. You cannot add specific folders. This contributes a lot to longer scanning times.

  • Software Informer Client - can be used to keep both your software and drivers up to date. It detected a good number of application updates (13 out of 18) but it missed one of the most vulnerable Windows applications - Adobe Flash Player. The application does not manage downloading and installing updates for you. It simply takes you to a download page.

    Software Informer

    There is very little to configure about it: if you are interested in beta versions, if you want it to run at startup and how often it should check for updates. What is interesting though, is that you can use it also as an application launcher, even though this feature is not turned on by default.

  • Software Update Monitor (SUMO) - the very first thing you notice about SUMO is how aggressive it is in promoting the software bundled with it. Pay a lot of attention when installing it, as it will promote unwanted software in more than half of its installation screens. I find treacherous the way it promotes a piece of nagware called RelevantKnowledge - it makes it look like you are accepting the license to install SUMO, not a piece of software you do not want. Even though I did my best to make a clean custom install, I still managed to get RelevantKnowledge installed on my computer and started receiving pop-ups about surveys and studies it wanted me to participate in. If you want to avoid the unwanted software bundled with it, look for download links to alternative versions, such as Sumo Nork, available for download in the More section.

    SUMO

    Leaving the annoying installation aside, SUMO did a pretty good job at detecting application updates. Initially it identified 13 out of 18 available. After our initial review, they updated the application and its performance in detecting updates has increased. Therefore, now 16 of the 18 applications we used for testing have been detected as having updates available. Also, SUMO now identifies updates for all 4 most vulnerable Windows applications (instead of just one, in our initial tests). What I still do not appreciate about it is the fact that the application does not really provide a download page or a download link as other programs do. Clicking on the Get Update button takes you to a page filled with ads and some links to other websites where you can search and download the application you need. Alternatively, it allows you to make a Google search that identifies a download page. This provides little value to the user, makes the update process a long longer than it should be and frustrates users!

A Visual Summary of the Test Results

I know our readers appreciate an easy to use overview. So... here’s one for you.

Test Results

The Best Software Update Checker Is....?

Unfortunately I do not have a one-size-fits-all answer for you. I guess you are used to this approach, after reading previous analysis we published. The answer is different depending on what you want:

  • The most click-free experience in keeping your software up-to-date is experienced when using the only commercial product included in this comparison: Ninite Updater. If you use many of the applications included in their database, this product is worth paying $9.99 per year. If you use many applications that are not in their database, then the free products recommended below are worthy alternatives.
  • If you are interested mostly in security and making sure your system is patched against the latest discovered threats, then Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) is the tool for you. There is no other software update tool that focuses this much on security. Unfortunately though, you will get information about updates for a smaller number of applications.
  • If you want to get information about as many application updates as possible, then Software Update Monitor (SUMO) is a good choice. However, you need to pay attention to what version you download and how you install it, so that you don’t install also the unwanted software bundled with it. Also, the downloading and the installation of updates will take longer than with other products, due to the fact that it doesn’t provide direct download links, nor does it take you to a download page. It only facilitates searching for updates.
  • And... if you want a light, free and easy to use experience, with good control over the update information you get and no annoying ads or "adware", I sincerely recommend FileHippo Update Checker. Even though its update detection rate was not spectacular, I became very fond of it and its general friendliness and I ended up using it on most of my computers.

Which Software Update Tool You Prefer?

Before you close this page, I would like you to share via the comments form - what software update checker do you prefer and why? I’m sure some of you are using other applications than the ones I tested, so don’t hesitate to talk about them. Also, don’t be shy and add more information about the programs covered in this analysis.