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My question is why is the Vista machine regularly downloading updates without asking my permission? I'll be sitting at my desk and notice that the PC has restarted itself and is installing something.
Can I turn off these updates? Would that be disastrous?
Should I just ignore them?
You can change the Automatic Update settings by using the Control Panel, selecting "Download and notify only" mode, or set a time (of day) to automatically install updates. Start->Control Panel->Automatic updates.
Don't turn this off, though, or you'll miss all the security fixes that Windows needs to stay safe.