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Lowdown on Software Upgrades: Saving Time, Money

November 02, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Even if you just bought your PC, chances are that at least some of your software is a little out of date. While in some cases the only way to get the newest version is to buy an update from the vendor, in many situations you can get a free upgrade simply by visiting the company's Web site.

Most software companies create new versions of their programs every year or two, which they try to sell to their existing customers. This upgrade cycle has become a particularly lucrative part of the business.

But not all upgrades cost money. Both software and hardware companies periodically make free updates available to fix bugs, improve performance, add features or support new hardware. This is especially true when it comes to drivers for printers, scanners, sound cards, digital cameras and other hardware devices.

For reasons that I don't quite understand, manufacturers almost never get it right when they first ship their products, so they wind up issuing updates over the Internet. PC makers often provide updates for the operating systems, utilities and hardware that can be downloaded over the Internet.

Microsoft has released several "service packs" (bug fixes) for Office and various versions of Windows, Internet Explorer and other programs. Intuit has been known to offer upgrades and bug fixes for Quicken and TurboTax. Qualcomm has come out with several patches for its popular Eudora e-mail program. Just about every software company I can think of has at one time or another offered some type of free update after a product has been released.

One way to find out if there's an update available for your hardware and software is to visit the Web site of each vendor whose products you own. Most will have a support area in which they list available software updates. Hardware companies typically have a "drivers" area in which you can download new drivers for your hardware.

If you go this route, be sure you know the version number of the product you already have. You can usually find out by selecting the "about" option at the bottom of the product's help menu. Finding the version number for hardware drivers can be a bit trickier, but the information is often available in a "readme.txt" file associated with the product.

You can also try calling the company's tech support department to get help finding out what version you have and if a newer one is available.

Another option is to use a product that searches for the updates for you, such as Oil Change from CyberMedia (, which was recently acquired by Network Associates; Update AnyWare from Green Tree (; or TuneUpDate (http// from Quarterdeck, which was just acquired by Symantec.

Each of these products works on a subscription basis. Oil Change and cost $39 per year; Update AnyWare is $29.95.

If you have Windows 98, you already have a feature that's designed to check for updates to the operating system and some printers and other hardware devices. The Windows Update option, which you'll find at the bottom of the Settings section of the start menu, takes you to a Web site that will analyze your system and tell you if you have out-of-date software. It works well, but the number of programs it checks for isn't nearly as extensive as what you get from the commercial programs.

All of these products work in fundamentally the same way. First, they look at the software on your hard disk and make a profile of the drivers and other software on your computer. The programs then go out over the Internet to compare your software with its database of known products. If it finds you have a product that is out of date, it lets you know and gives you the opportunity to download and install the new version. Each of these programs does this without your having to know anything about the software or visit the company's Web site. They also give you an opportunity to download selected freeware and shareware programs, including utilities and games.

Oil Change and TuneUpDate install an application on your hard disk. Update AnyWare gives you a choice of using a client application or doing the entire process via the company's Web site. I tried it both ways and found the Web-based interface to be more intuitive, but neither the client software nor the Web interface was completely reliable.

Oil Change was easy to use and mostly reliable. But the first time I used it, it told me that I needed a new version of the free AOL Instant Messenger program. I told it to go ahead, and instead of upgrading me with the new version, it installed an older version over what turned out to be the latest version. Later, I ran TuneUpDate, which correctly reinstalled the newest version.

TuneUpDate seemed to do a good job finding out-of-date drivers, but it was a little overzealous by suggesting that I update drivers for hardware devices I don't even have on my PC.

Bottom line: These programs can help you keep up to date and save you the time of checking the Web sites of individual companies, but you have to keep your eyes open to make sure they're doing the job correctly.


Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at His Web page is at On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."

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