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The Main Windows Update Terms, Explained

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Chifundo Kasiya
2022-01-20 10:15:12

Windows updates bring many new features, performance improvements, bug fixes, security upgrades, and more to Microsoft’s magnum opus of an operating system. However, you might see terminology like critical update, cumulative update, security update, patches, or hotfixes and wonder what they all mean.

Well, we’re here to help you learn the important terms that everyone needs to know, so you know just what you’re downloading and why. Here’s what all the Windows updates terms mean, and how they differ.

1. What Is a “Patch?”

PHP code

A patch is simply a piece of code that Microsoft has added to Windows to fix errors that affect performance or security. Sometimes, a patch will also bring new functionality.

2. What Is a “Hotfix?”

If a patch has introduced its own slew of bugs, Microsoft will release a hotfix, which is essentially a patch of a patch. So if you notice that Windows is misbehaving after a patch, you’ll have to download the associated hotfix for it.

3. What Is a “Critical Update” in Windows Update?

When Microsoft releases a critical update for Windows, it has patched a specific problem that is crucial to the smooth operation of the operating system. The problem is usually something that a significant number of users are experiencing, but it’s not security-related. Microsoft recommends that you install a critical update the moment it’s available.

4. How About a “Feature Update?”

Windows 10 feature update 21h2 ready to install

A feature update is basically the latest version of the Windows operating system you’re currently using. It brings with it new functionality and tightens up security loopholes.


Microsoft releases two feature updates a year (in spring and fall). Once released, Microsoft will support that version of Windows for the next 18 months, and support for the previous version will end. You’ll need to update your operating system to the latest version to continue receiving updates.

Related: How to Add a “Check for Updates” Context Menu Option in Windows 10 and 11

5. What Is a “Cumulative Update?”

A cumulative or quality update combines several patches, hotfixes, and critical and non-critical updates meant to address performance and security issues in Windows. This update also bundles previous updates to that point, allowing you to apply several changes that truly bring your current version of Windows up to date.

6. What Is a “Service Pack?”

A service pack is an easily-deployable cumulative update that delivers patches, hotfixes, and updates (both critical and non-critical). Microsoft may also include new design and functionality changes that users request through various feedback channels.

7. What Is a Windows “Security Update?”

Microsoft releases a security update when it has patched a major security vulnerability reported by major corporations. Microsoft will label this update as either critical, important, moderate, or low, depending on the severity. Not downloading a security update increases the risk that different types of cybercriminals will attack your PC.

8. What Are “Feature Packs?”

A feature pack is a cumulative update, bringing all the latest fixes and changes that will most likely be in the next full release of Windows.

9. What Constitutes an “Update Rollup?”

An update rollup is a cumulative update meant to fix or update a specific part of Windows. For example, Microsoft can release an update rollup to patch Windows security vulnerabilities. It can even target an operating system component, such as Windows Media Services or SharePoint.

10. What About “Upgrades?”

Person using Windows 11 laptop

An upgrade doesn’t just update the operating system to another version but changes it entirely to a different Windows product. Make sure you don’t confuse it with a feature update. An example of an upgrade would be moving from Windows 10 to 11, and a feature update would be updating from Windows 10 version 1809 to version 21H2.

Related: Things to Do Before Updating to Windows 11

Now You Know the Most Important Windows Update Lingo

This list of Windows update terminology only scratches the surface—we can’t possibly cover them all in a single list. However, you’ll encounter these terms mentioned above in many update scenarios, and it helps to know what they are, especially if you’re new to Windows.

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