Meltdown/Spectre updates and patches: What you need to know

Q: I’m hearing conflicting stories on processor firmware updates. Should I try doing it now or wait?

The Meltdown/Spectre processor flaws have created a considerable mess for the tech industry, with most companies scrambling to push out updates and patches. This “rush to fix” has created a variety of issues, ranging from blue-screen errors to random rebooting problems.

Not yet available

In our review of machines that we have in for service across our stores, the vast majority of them have no patch available with some that have pending publication dates in the near future. At this time, it appears the attempts to fix the flaw is causing more headaches than it’s worth, especially in light of the fact that no known exploits “in the wild” have been discovered yet.

Most recent recommendations

Intel recently published the following based on the various problems that have been reported:

We recommend that OEMs, cloud service providers, system manufacturers, software vendors and end users stop deployment of current versions, as they may introduce higher than expected reboots and other unpredictable system behavior. 

HP and Dell followed suit by pulling updates from their websites and advised their customers not to deploy the update if they have already downloaded it.

This seems to underscore the general opinion across the tech industry: At this point, it’s safer to go with your processor unpatched than it is to risk installing a rushed firmware update that hasn’t gone through the normal testing cycles.

Businesses should be especially careful about how and when they choose to attempt to patch their hardware, as the resulting fallout could be disruptive. Selectively testing on nonessential systems is highly recommended.

The road to recovery

Part of the challenge both the industry and end-users face is that it’s not clear who’s responsible for creating and distributing the firmware updates.

In some cases, you can go directly to Intel’s resources, as long as you know exactly what type of motherboard/CPU combination you’re using.

In other cases, you’ll have to go to the support website for the specific manufacturer of your computer, keeping in mind that this flaw is not limited to only Intel’s processors.

Older systems may never get a patch; many with obscure systems could be waiting for months or even a year before they’ll see an update.

In the meantime …

The best thing you can do right now is figure out who will be responsible for providing a firmware update for your computer(s) so you can monitor that resource or sign up for an alert if they offer it. You should also make sure you have the latest updates for your browsers and operating systems on all your devices as all three will need to be patched in order to be protected.

Windows performance issues

Microsoft says older Windows systems like 7 or 8 will most likely suffer a noticeable decrease in system performance after the update: “Older versions of Windows have a larger performance impact because Windows 7 and Windows 8 have more user-kernel transitions because of legacy design decisions, such as all font rendering taking place in the kernel.”

Microsoft is recommending users upgrade to Windows 10 to reduce the performance degradation.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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