Saturday, August 12, 2017

Are Windows Updates to blame for the Microsoft Surface losing Consumer Reports' "recommended" status?

Does Microsoft have only itself to blame for the recent condemnation by Consumer Reports regarding its Surface line of products? Here’s why I think Windows Updates is the real culprit...

On August 10, Consumer Reports (CR) announced it is “removing its 'recommended' designation from four Microsoft laptops and cannot recommend any other Microsoft laptops or tablets because of poor predicted reliability in comparison with most other brands” (

The article goes on to cite the specific Surface models involved, CR's justification for removing the “recommended” designation, and, notably, Microsoft’s objection to the report's findings. Toward the end of the article, CR provides several specific examples of the performance issues upon which they based their decision--information that is culled from reliability surveys of “millions” of “folks” who “supply us with information on hundreds of thousands of individual products”:

“A number of survey respondents said they experienced problems with their devices during startup. A few commented that their machines froze or shut down unexpectedly, and several others told CR that the touch screens weren’t responsive enough.”

The following anecdotal information is based on my thirty-plus years of experience as a computer hobbyist, and fifteen years as an IT/IS Manager for an enterprise environment. I started using Microsoft DOS based computers in 1989, and subsequently Windows 3.1 shortly thereafter. Back in those days, there was no such thing as “Windows Updates”. Until recently, Windows Updates were something that could be turned off. As of Windows 10, the user no longer has control over the Operating System (OS) update process. Although this is the way it must be due to the nature of the Internet and the lack of expert administrative knowledge on the part of the vast majority of computer users, the inability to control the OS update process creates a significant usability problem because virtually every round of software updates introduces reliability issues. Software update induced issues have always been inevitable; and now, thanks to updates being mandatory (at least on Windows 10), this is an ongoing, recurring source of device instability.

Although unexpected shutdowns and OS freeze ups are sometimes attributable to hardware issues (e.g., a failing storage device can result in this type of behavior), in my experience I have found that most of the time these types of issues are due to excessive CPU and/or memory usage. Ironically, as I was sitting down to write this blog entry, my wireless network adapter connection abruptly dropped, and the processor started running continuously at 50% usage (this is not normal). The computer is a Dell XPS 12 that has 8GB of memory and an Intel Core i7-3537U CPU. It originally shipped in early 2013 with Windows 8, and was subsequently upgraded to Windows 10. Although the 3537U is not the latest generation i7 CPU, it has plenty of horsepower for running the Chrome web browser with a bunch of tabs open. But here it was, running sluggishly and acting slightly unresponsive due to the excessive CPU and memory usage.

The culprit that was sucking all that CPU and memory into a black hole? "Windows Modules Installer Task".

Granted, this sort of problem doesn’t happen with every monthly deployment of Windows Updates, but I would estimate erratic system behavior occurs, on average, at least four to six times per year--and I can almost always trace it to the delivery of Windows Updates (I do this sort of work on server systems as well). Of course, occasional freezing and unresponsiveness are not the only issues I have with my personal computer system. I can’t use sleep mode because it’s highly unreliable (I’ll lose data if I dare to try). The XPS 12 is a 2-in-1 with a flip screen, but I rarely use tablet mode because despite numerous updates that seem to be Microsoft trying to make it work better, it still sucks. Most annoyingly, it will flip into portrait mode when I don’t want it to, and then it won’t go back into landscape mode no matter how much I turn or twist it. (I then have to go into Display Settings to fix this problem.) And the virtual keyboard? Good luck typing a complex password with non-alphanumeric characters (granted, this is actually a usability issue). Hence I mostly use my Windows 10 based 2-in-1 device as a laptop. I rely on an actual tablet (see next paragraph) for tablet style computing, which makes me wonder how useful a Microsoft Surface (since I don’t own one myself) really is for tablet profile usage.

Speaking of which, to be fair to Microsoft, they have more than just their own Surface devices to accommodate with Windows 10. It’s not like at Apple where they can snicker about Microsoft’s updates woes because Apple controls all the hardware that their OS ships on, making it infinitely easier to avoid update related hardware issues. Of course, on the Surface a lack of hardware control isn’t a usable excuse by Microsoft (but see below for more info on this point). Furthermore, problematic updates affect all the big players in the computer electronics market, regardless of whether or not they control the hardware. For comparison, I recently upgraded my Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 to Android 7, which subsequently caused the U-verse app to stop functioning properly, and in fairness to Google and Samsung, the U-verse app already had significant reliability issues prior to the Android 7 update.

What it all boils down to is that essentially updates are a necessary evil, and the bad is always delivered with the good.

Specifically, in regard to Microsoft Surface devices that have been demoted from Consumer Reports “recommended” status, CR states in their article that: “The new studies of laptop and tablet reliability leverage data on 90,741 tablets and laptops that subscribers bought new between 2014 and the beginning of 2017.” Granted, I’m not privy to the hardware specifications on all those devices, but being in charge of computer acquisitions for an enterprise environment, I can guarantee that the vast majority of home and small business class laptop/notebook type devices purchased from 2014 to 2017 have 4GB of memory and a Core i3 or i5 processor--at best. If I’m seeing significant Windows Update initiated performance issues on a computer with 8GB memory and an i7 CPU, there is no question that performance is going to be a major problem on a large percentage those 90,000 devices. And I’m not even going to go into the known issue with some early Surface models having insufficient hardware specifications and being left on the market too long by Microsoft. Combine all of these factors with a lack of user knowledge regarding what to expect and/or be aware of in regard to “known” performance and reliability issues, and you have a perfect recipe for negative user feedback being provided to Consumer Reports.

In this regard, Microsoft has only itself to blame for the CR survey results that criticized Surface devices. Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony, Apple and many other computer hardware manufacturers have been building devices for a lot longer than Microsoft, and are far more proficient at knowing where to draw the line on the fine balance between price, performance and reliability. Apparently Microsoft still has some learning to do. While they can publicly “dismiss” the Consumer Reports findings, hopefully, behind the scenes, Microsoft has learned a valuable lesson from this misstep.