“You really should update your OS!”

Do you have a computer helper in your life, always pestering you with this refrain? What does “update your OS” even mean? And why should you do it?

“What’s an OS again?”

Your computer (or tablet, smartphone, or other device) comes equipped with software called an “operating system” or “OS” (that(s pronounced “oh-ess”). In brief, this is the software – that is, the instructions for the device – that let it perform its basic functions: starting up, connecting to the Internet, displaying things on the screen, much more.

The OS is not the added applications (or “apps”) that you generally use: the games, spreadsheet apps, word processor apps, music player apps, social media apps, and countless others. The OS just handles really basic functions, so that all your apps don’t have to worry about those things. That is, your music player app doesn’t have to worry about how to make the screen display letters, or how to make the speakers play sound. It just tells the OS, “Show this song title on the screen. Make the speakers play this tune.”, and the OS handles that basic stuff  for the music player app. Likewise for any other app.

In short, the OS is the software that runs the device, and that makes it possible for your apps (games, word processors, etc. etc.) to run on the device. Without an OS, your apps wouldn’t run, and the device would be good for nothing.

It may not be the most exciting of topics, but if you’re going to own and use computers, smartphones, and the like, it’s definitely good to have some idea of what an OS is, and what OS is running on any device of yours. I recommend you take the time to read just a bit more here.

“All right. So what’s this about ‘updating’ the OS?”

The OS running your computer (or other devices) is made by someone: by Apple if you have a Mac computer, an iPhone, or an iPad (among other devices), by Microsoft if you have the general type of computer known as a “Windows PC”, by Google if you have a computer called a Chromebook or a smartphone knows as an “Android phone”.

But unless one of those companies completely gives up on your device’s OS (“We’re stopping production of this!”), the OS is always a work in progress. The companies keep modifying and adding to their OSs. Why? Lots of reasons:

  • To add some new features that users are demanding
  • To add some new features that users never asked for, but that the companies think users will like
  • To make the OS, which was designed for existing old devices, work with future new devices
  • To fix problems (“bugs”) in the OS, or otherwise improve its performance
  • To let the device use some new apps that will only function if the OS supports them with some new OS features
  • To fix newly-discovered security problems in the OS that could let ne’er-do-wells cause trouble with your device, access private information on your device, or even seize control of your device

Those are the reasons why companies continually come up with new versions of their OSs, and why you would consider updating the OS – that is, replacing the old version with the new version.

“Do I have to update the OS?”

Well, no, not if there’s no pressing reason. If Apple or Google or Microsoft is dangling a new version of your device’s OS before your eyes, but you don’t care about its acclaimed new features, and the apps you want to use aren’t giving you any complaints of “Sorry, you need a newer version of your OS to use this app”, then you likely don’t have to do anything.

“But should I update the OS?”

Well, maybe so. Why? A few key reasons:

  • The new version may fix problems that have long annoyed you
  • You might find you love the new version’s shiny new features
  • The longer you hang on to an old OS version, the more likely you’ll run into some new app with features that won’t work with  your old OS (or a new app that won’t work at all with your old OS)
  • With a very old OS, you may be unable to get support from the manufacturer if serious troubles come up, or you may be unable to find other users around you who can help
  • It’s almost certain that an old OS version is less secure than a new version

That last item is important: Security. Every day, you see news stories about “security flaws” in devices, about leaks of personal information, about attacks and viruses that let shady types mess with people’s devices. The sad truth is that criminals and anti-social nuts are constantly hacking away at OS software, to discover flaws they can exploit to harm or spy on or take control of other people’s devices. (No, I don’t mean they’re poking around at the software on your device itself, but they’re learning about its weaknesses all the same.)

But as these shady types keep finding flaws in the software, the companies making the OSs keep patching the flaws, plugging the holes, etc. It’s a given that a new versions of an OS contains fixes to shut down whatever nasty tricks the bad guys have recently dreamt up.

Using the latest version of your OS (and the latest versions of all your apps) can never offer complete security. The good guys are always one step behind in patching the cracks that the bad guys have discovered. And there are security risks that no newfangled software can prevent (like a bad guy learning some password of yours by peeking over your shoulder as you type).

But security on a computer isn’t terribly different from home door locks, or security in the “real” world. You can never be completely secure, true, but the important thing is to be secure enough to send the bad guys elsewhere. With the latest version of your OS, you’re more likely to be one of the “hard” targets that make the baddies look for easier pickings. With an old OS, and all of its old security flaws well-known to the baddies, you’re more likely to be the easy pickings.

So, should you update your device’s OS? Well, it’s really up to you and your exact circumstances. You might want to ask the advice of an experienced helper. But if you’re really not sure, consider keeping your OS updated to the latest version just to keep yourself among the safer users out there.

“Is there any downside to updating?”

For a lot of people in a lot of cases, no! But again, it may be best to read up a bit on a major update before diving in. Potential downsides include:

  • Some new “feature” that you find annoying!
  • Other changes that the OS creators thought you’d prefer (but boy, were they wrong)
  • Some old app of yours that now refuses to work with the new OS
  • Time lost to the update process (typically leaving the device unusable for a good length of time, even several hours, while it goes through its update process)
  • Most worrying of all: The dreaded “something went wrong” that leaves the computer unusable, or causes some loss of data, etc.

I don’t mean to scare you with that last one! But it can happen in rare cases, which is why it’s best to read the instructions for an update before jumping in, and – this is vital – to back up your data. That means to make a secure copy of your data elsewhere, and to know how to use that backup to replace any data lost on your device.

Backing up your data is a big topic to address elsewhere. For now, let me summarize the whole “downsides” topic with this: Updating a device’s OS typically goes smoothly for most people, but it’s important to be ready for “just in case” troubles. If you’re not confident about how to do get ready, and how to do the update itself, that’s a good time to get the advice of a helper. (Maybe I can offer advice too, if you ask.)

“How do I update?”

That’s a big topic! I hope to address it soon (or sooner, if people ask).

“Maybe I’ll update. What exactly is in it for me?”

The answer will differ, of course, depending on what OS we’re talking about.

Let me start by offering one guide, showing what updating the OS on a Mac computer will get you. If you’re still rocking a years-old OS on your Mac, click the link below to learn what the next OS version, and the next, all the way to most current version, will do for you. (The descriptions include information to tell you whether your Mac can accept the newer version in question!)

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