Updates are meant to fix problems: patch up security vulnerabilities, increase performance, improve reliability, or even add features. Unfortunately, sometimes the cure is worse than the disease and they cause new problems that can be frustrating to track down and undo.

The case of the missing mouse pointer

Last week, I was sitting at my Surface Pro, minding my own business, getting some work done (okay, maybe I was perusing Facebook – whatever) when Outlook popped up its standard like message that Office updates were available. I went on about my business and then, at an opportune time, clicked to install them.

Normally it’s a quick and painless process. I went to get coffee while the installation proceeded and the system restarted. Came back, sat down and looked at the lock screen, facial recognition greeted me with its usual cheerful “Hi, Deb,” and I started to get back to work. Except … when I moved the mouse to click to open a program, there was no pointer anywhere on the screen to be found.

Now, at first I wasn’t concerned. Let me explain my setup: I use my Surface Pro (highest end specs) as my desktop computer. I have it connected to a docking station, which in turn is connected to a 10 port USB hub. I have two 27 inch external monitors connected to the docking station via HDMI and a pair of 16 inch portable monitors connected via USB.  Then there is a 32 inch widescreen monitor connected to the mini Displayport output.

This means I have my desktop extended across six monitors with a big spread of screen real estate for maximum multitasking. Sometimes my mouse pointer gets “lost” between screens. Usually if I move it around enough, it finds its way onto one of the screens and appears. Not this time, though.

It’s a USB, not a wireless mouse, so it wasn’t a dead battery issue – the most common cause of a lost pointer. Of course I tried unplugging it from the USB hub and plugging it back in but that brought no joy. I also tried unplugging the hub from the computer and plugging the mouse in directly, although that wouldn’t be a long-term solution since I need all of those ports. It didn’t matter, as the mouse was still a no-show.

I knew it wasn’t a problem with the docking station or USB hub, since the monitors and the other USB devices (external hard drive, SD card reader, webcam, headphones) were all working fine. Nonetheless, I’ve seen one or two ports on a hub go wacky before, so I did try switching the ports of the mouse and the SD reader. Result: SD reader still worked; mouse still didn’t.

Did the mouse just suddenly fail completely? Mechanical/electronic devices do sometimes – just give up the ghost for no apparent reason. So I went to my bag and dug out my travel mouse and plugged it in. Nope, it didn’t work, either.

Well, there are always keyboard commands, right?  Except – oops, it didn’t seem to be recognizing the keyboard input, either.  This was annoying but I figured the old universal solution – rebooting – would probably fix it all up.  After all, it’s recommended by nine out of ten tech support people. So much for that idea. After the restart, the mouse and keyboard were still non-functional.

Next step: check the drivers. But that’s not as easy to do with only the touch screen so I thought I would attach the Surface Pro’s Type cover keyboard. I don’t like it as well as my full size ergo keyboard and programmable Logitech mouse but it would certainly be better than trying to use the on-screen keyboard.  Except – you guessed it – that didn’t work, either.

Interestingly, when I attached the Type cover, Windows gave me a message that it was “installing” it (a little odd since it should already be installed) but it still didn’t respond, including after another reboot. Okay, now it was time to do some serious research. Thank goodness the Surface is a touch screen device because that would have been difficult otherwise.

I spent about half an hour searching, and ran across plenty of cases of Windows 10 losing the mouse and/or keyboard function but I suspected it was the update that had caused the problem. However, I didn’t know which update did it and I didn’t want to go removing them unnecessarily. Finally, in an obscure forum, I found a reference to a problem identical to mine that was resolved by uninstalling KB4074588. Okay, I was willing to give that a try.

That went off without a hitch, and when I rebooted, guess what? Mouse and keyboard were back, nonchalantly working just fine, as if they had never been gone. And that was nearly two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. But it won’t be wasted if this helps someone else who experiences the same thing.

The prevalence of patch-related problems

My problem could have been worse. Both the January and February patch releases from Microsoft stirred up a rash of complaints about issues that they introduced on some machines. The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update disabled caused blue screens on some machines, as well as problems with USB devices. That INACCESSIBLE_BOOT_DEVICE error is a particularly scary thing to see when you need to get work done, as is the black screen that some Windows 7 computers were getting after installing the February monthly rollup.

Of course, problems caused by updates are nothing new to anyone who’s used a computer much. Some of us are old enough to recall the infamous service pack that caused Windows XP to go into an endlessly repeating reboot loop back a decade or so ago.

Most recently, companies and individual users reported error messages and logon problems resulting from the application of the patches issued to protect against the Meltdown and Spectre processor vulnerabilities. Others experienced performance slowdowns after applying those patches.

Back last October, there was an issue with a Windows 10 monthly update that was causing computers to fail to boot after installation of the patch, and last August a Windows 7 security update was causing problems with the displays on secondary  monitors in certain applications.

It’s not just Windows that’s prone to problems after patching, either. The Meltdown patch for Linux created boot loop problems for some Ubuntu users running versions with older kernels. A few days ago (mid-March 2018), a gaming site was reporting that a patch for Mac OS X was preventing gamers from launching League of Legends.  

And of course, problems can be caused by updates to application software, drivers, or firmware updates, as well. For example, last November users of Adobe Reader DC found themselves unable to open PDFs after an update.

Computers are complicated devices that involve many different types of code working together. When you introduce changes to one part of that mass of code, it’s very easy to break the way it works in conjunction with the rest.

Troubleshooting patch problems

You know the saying: Prevention is the best cure. Couple that with the Boy Scouts’ motto – be prepared – and you have the first step in saving yourself a good deal of grief due to patching problems. When new updates are released, take the time to read through the documentation and take note of any “known issues” that may impact you.

Being prepared also means knowing how to roll back updates of various kinds – before you need that knowledge:

  • Check anti-virus and firewall settings to ensure that you don’t end up with failed (or worse, half-failed) updates.
  • make sure you’re creating system restore points  
  • back up data frequently, in case the worst does happen.

Unfortunately, more and more software vendors are pushing their updates whether you want them or not, so the old solution of simply deferring updates until others have served as the “guinea pigs” is getting more difficult. Thus, many update conflicts and issues aren’t discovered until after a number of people (perhaps including you) have installed the updates and experienced the problems. In that case, you have to go into troubleshooting mode.

The most difficult parts of troubleshooting patch-related problems are:

  • Determining that the problem was in fact caused by an update, and
  • Determining which update caused the problem.

You might think it’s obvious that an update caused the problem because it occurred right after the updates were installed. However, that’s not always the case. Because updates often require the computer to reboot, some hardware problems that were already extant might not show themselves until the computer is restarted.

Don’t underestimate the value of web research. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel if others have already figured it out for you, so do a search for the type of problem you’re experiencing (such as “mouse and keyboard not recognized after update”) or a more general search for “problems following [update name or number of the patch you suspect].”  This is the way I’ve pinned down the culprit many times.

There are also many articles out there that give detailed advice on the step-by-step process of troubleshooting these problems.

Once you have a good idea of what the problem is, you have to decide what to do about it. Uninstalling the update is the logical first thought, but if it’s a security update for a vulnerability that’s serious and being exploited, you might want to try something else first. Don’t forget to try restarting the computer a few times. Sometimes it seems to take several restarts before everything falls into place and things work again.

If the update removed drivers, you can try reinstalling them to get things working again. Sometimes an update might change some settings, such as the default program used to open a file type, but you can easily fix that but manually changing the file associations back to the way you had them.

If that doesn’t work, ask yourself whether the problem introduced by the update is bad enough to risk going without the protection provided by the update. If the update rendered your system unbootable (or disabled essential peripherals), uninstalling may be the necessary evil. If you’re just experiencing a slowdown, or a problem with an application you don’t use often, it might be better to keep the patch and hope the vendor issues a fix soon.

If you do decide to uninstall the update, you can either do a system restore to a point prior to the update installation, or manually uninstall the specific update from the Programs and Features option in Control Panel (on Windows).

Even if this fixes the issue, don’t start celebrating yet. Remember that Windows Update may try to automatically install the same patch again, and you’ll be back where you started. You can change the Windows Update settings to defer some updates, or depending on your operating system, choose to install updates manually, but there’s no way to turn off auto updating or disable Windows Update in Windows 10.

Security updates are a fact of life, and they aren’t going to go away. In fact, as attackers get more sophisticated at finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in code, and the consequences of exploits get more severe, updates are likely to become more frequent. It’s inevitable, with software vendors rushing to get them out and installed before large numbers of computers are victimized, that some updates will be released with bugs that cause problems.

As frustrating as it is, learning to keep calm and follow a process for troubleshooting and undoing the damage is your best bet for minimizing lost time and productivity.