Is it possible to escape software-update hell?

Is it possible to escape software-update hell?

When we convene here every Friday to talk about the games we’ll be playing over the coming weekend, there’s rarely any mention of a game that all of us play more often than we’d like: the update game. You play it instead of whatever you were hoping to play, when your screen pops up the dreaded warning, “An update is required.” The update game is an endless runner, like Canabalt, except instead of running from something, you’re running toward the technological frontier, supposedly. Yet that frontier is always just out of reach—that’s why you have to play, after all.

Everything needs to be updated now. Consoles need their regular technological care and feeding, and so do the games you play on them. Playing on a PC is no better: Not only do you have to keep the operating system and its associated constellation of device drivers up to date, but you also have to apply patches to the games—and, often, the programs you use to acquire those games. I’m looking at you, Steam client. You go through updates like a chain smoker—I can practically see you using yesterday’s update to light the tip of today’s.

I probably hate updates more than your average player since my job demands that I be able to play games on any platform. With the previous console generation still quite vibrant and relevant, I have five consoles hooked up to my TV right now—a PlayStation 3, a PlayStation 4, an Xbox 360, an Xbox One, and a Wii U. There’s also my gaming PC, an Apple TV, and my DirecTV DVR. Of all these devices, only the Xbox One and the DVR can update themselves, and I have the auto-update feature turned off on the Xbox One because it requires you to use wasteful energy settings. I use the pleasingly named “Harmony Ultimate” universal remote to control these infernal contraptions—and it, too, demands periodic downloads of new firmware. The upshot: I get a lot of update notifications, and they drive me nuts.

So a few months ago, I tried an experiment. While my wife was out of the house for a couple of hours one evening, I decided to update everything that I could—to have a truly up-to-date household. (I excluded the console games, as their update patches usually apply quickly, and I’m probably not going to play most of them again in any case.) It was exhausting. The machines needed various degrees of babysitting. Sometimes downloading the update was a separate step from applying it, and in between these steps a device would need me to approve the actual installation.

I learned that the Xbox One controller has firmware updates. I gritted my teeth at this fresh madness, but I plugged the thing in and got the download going. When I tried to update the firmware on my Harmony remote, I first had to update Microsoft Silverlight to run the Harmony software. The PC also sent me down a few of these “you gotta update the other thing before you update this thing” rabbit holes.

Two hours later, my wife came home to a living room that was a mess of remotes, gamepads, and USB cables. I didn’t even manage to update everything I’d hoped to, but I came pretty close, and I cut the exercise short because I could not bring myself to stare at another slow-advancing progress bar. Now the second part of the experiment began: Would my efforts make any difference? Could I enjoy a brief respite from the incessant nagging of the machines?

No. I could not. Depressingly, that evening of update madness had no appreciable effect on my electronic quality of life in the ensuing weeks. I was still peppered with requests to update—I got a new-firmware notification from the PlayStation 4 less than 24 hours later, in fact—and each one made that frenzied night seem more pointless. So as I cede the floor for you to share your weekend plans, dear readers, I want to ask: How do you play the update game? Have you found an approach that minimizes nuisance and preserves your sanity? If so, I’d like to hear it.

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