July 19, 2012, 9:46 PM — This is an update of a post I wrote nearly three years ago. Because I continue to encounter the problem on new PCs, I figured it was time to revisit it for those users who missed the original article.
I'll bet good money this has happened to you: You step away from the computer for a little while, and when you come back, all your windows and work are gone.
What happened? Windows, that's what. Windows Update downloaded some updates and took it upon itself to reboot without your permission.
This should never happen. Never, ever, ever. It doesn't matter that Windows is attempting to keep itself secure and fine-tuned and all that; under no circumstances should an operating system reboot without permission.
At best, it's a hassle. At worst, you stand to lose any work you haven't saved.
Thankfully, there's an easy fix for this, and I'm kicking myself for not applying it sooner. If you've been plagued by the same problem, here's what you need to do:
1. In Vista and Windows 7, click Start, type Windows Update, and then hit Enter. In XP, head to the Control Panel and seek out Windows Update.
2. Click the Change Settings option at left. (That's where it appears in Vista/7; not entirely sure about XP.)
3. Change the setting to Download updates but let me choose whether to install them.
4. Click OK.
That's all there is to it. Windows may still nag you about installing updates, but at least it won't reboot without your permission.
Needless to say, I'm curious to see if Microsoft has changed this obnoxious auto-update system in Windows 8. If you're test-driving the OS and have the chance to poke around in those settings, let me know if you spy anything different.
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.