Most of the time, Windows Update does its job with little attention from us. While we might check and install updates manually from time to time, most Windows computers are configured to apply important updates automatically, usually the night of Patch Tuesday.
Sometimes however, when the patch, or maybe even service pack, is being installed during shutdown or startup, the update installation stops - freezes, locks up, hangs, clocks, whatever you want to call it.
The installation of one or more Windows updates is probably frozen if you see one of the following messages persist for a long time:
"Preparing to configure Windows.
Do not turn off your computer."
"Configuring Windows updates
Do not turn off your computer."
"Please do not power off or unplug your machine.
Installing update x of x..."
You might also see a "Stage 1 of 1" or "Stage 1 of 3" or a similar message prior to the second example. There might be some wording differences too depending on which version of Windows you're using.
If you don't see anything at all on screen, especially if you think the updates may have been installed completely, see my How To Fix Problems Caused by Windows Updates tutorial instead.
Cause of Windows Update Freezes
There are several reasons why the installation or finalization of one or more Windows updates can hang.
Most often, these types of problems are due to a software conflict or a preexisting issue that simply wasn't brought to light until the Windows updates started installing. Much more rarely they're caused by a mistake on Microsoft's part regarding the update itself.
Note: There's an actual issue with Windows that can cause Windows Update installations to freeze like this but it's only applicable to Windows Vista and only if SP1 hasn't yet been installed. If your computer fits that description, install Windows Vista SP1 or later or this update to solve the problem.
Verify The Problem
Some Windows updates can take several minutes or more to configure or install so you want to make sure the updates are truly stuck before moving on. Trying to fix a problem that doesn't really exist will just create a problem.
You can tell if Windows updates are frozen if nothing happens on screen for 30 minutes or more. If there's any wonder after that long, take a look at your hard drive activity light. You'll see either no activity at all, or very regular but very short flashes of light.
Chances are that the updates are hung long before 30 minutes but this is a reasonable amount of time to wait and probably twice as long as I've ever seen a Windows update take to successfully install.
- Press Ctrl-Alt-Del. In some situations, the Windows update(s) may be hung at a very particular part of the installation process and you could be presented with your Windows login screen after executing the Ctrl-Alt-Del keyboard command.
If so, log on as you normally would and let the updates continue to install successfully.
Note: If your computer restarts after the Ctrl-Alt-Del, read the Note in Step 2 below. If nothing happens (most likely) then move on to Step 2.
- Restart your computer, using either the reset button or by powering it off and then back on using the power button. Hopefully Windows will start normally and finish installing the updates.
I realize that you're probably explicitly told not to do this by the message on the screen, but if the Windows update installation is truly frozen then you have no other choice but to hard reboot.
Tip: Depending on how Windows and BIOS/UEFI are configured, you may have to hold down the power button for three to four seconds before the computer will turn off. On a tablet or laptop, removing the battery may be necessary.
Note: If you're automatically taken to the Advanced Boot Options or Startup Settings menu after restarting, choose Safe Mode and see the comments in Step 3 below.
- Start Windows in Safe Mode. This special diagnostic mode of Windows only loads the minimum drivers and services that Windows absolutely needs so if another program or service is conflicting with one of the Windows updates, the install might finish up just fine.
If the Windows updates do install successfully and you continue to Safe Mode, just restart from there to enter Windows normally.
- Complete a System Restore to undo the changes made so far by the incomplete installation of the Windows updates. Since you can't access Windows normally, try doing this from Safe Mode. See the link in Step 2 if you're not sure how to start in Safe Mode.
Note: During the System Restore, be sure to choose the restore point created by Windows just prior to the update installation.
Assuming a restore point was made and System Restore is successful, your computer should be returned to the state it was in before the updates started. If this problem occurred after automatic updating, like what happens on Patch Tuesday, be sure to change Windows Update settings so this problem doesn't reoccur on its own.
- Try System Restore from Advanced Startup Options (Windows 8) or System Recovery Options (Windows 7 & Vista) if you're not able to access Safe Mode or if the restore failed from Safe Mode. Since these menus of tools are available from "outside" of Windows, you can try this even if Windows is completely unavailable.
Important: System Restore is only available from outside of Windows if you're using Windows 8, Windows 7, or Windows Vista. This option is not available in Windows XP.
- Complete a Startup Repair. While a System Restore is a more direct way of undoing changes, in this case a Windows update, a Startup Repair (or Repair Install in Windows XP) could be helpful if a System Restore isn't successful for some reason.
- Test your computer's memory. It's possible that failing RAM could be causing the patch installations to freeze. Luckily memory is really easy to test.
- Update BIOS. An outdated BIOS isn't a common cause for this problem but it's possible.
If one or more of the updates Windows is trying to install is involved with how Windows works with your motherboard or other built-in hardware, a BIOS update could solve the issue.
- Clean install Windows. A clean install involves completely erasing the hard drive that Windows is installed on and then installing Windows again from scratch on that same drive.
Obviously you don't want to do this if you don't have to but it's a very likely fix if the troubleshooting steps prior to this one were unsuccessful.
Note: It might seem likely that reinstalling Windows, and then these same exact Windows updates, will cause the same problem but that isn't usually what happens. Since most lock-up issues caused by updates by Microsoft are actually software conflicts, a clean install of Windows, followed promptly by the installation of all available updates, usually results in a perfectly working computer.
Please let me know if you've had success escaping a hung Windows update installation using a method I don't have included in the troubleshooting above. I'd be happy to include it here.
Still Having Freezing Issues Related to Windows Update?
Let a community of computer support enthusiasts help out! Post the details of your problem in the PC Support Forum. Be sure to let us know exactly what's happening, what updates you're installing (if you know) and what steps, if any, you've already taken to try to fix the problem.