Windows 7 celebrates its eighth birthday in 2017. That’s a bit long in the tooth by modern computing standards, but there’s life in the old OS yet. Under Microsoft’s 10-year support lifecycle, Windows 7 still has a few years left as it eases toward the end of its extended support phase in January 2020.
But that advanced age comes with its own aches, pains, and slowdowns. If you’re an IT pro or independent consultant still building and maintaining Windows 7 PCs, you have firsthand experience with the aggravation of building a new Windows 7 box from scratch.
After you use installation media to install Windows 7 with Service Pack 1, you have hundreds of updates to download and install, a process that can take hours.
No, it’s not a Microsoft conspiracy to get you to give up on Windows 7 and upgrade to Windows 10. The trouble is with the five-year-old servicing stack–the part of Windows that scans for updates and then downloads and installs your selection–which isn’t up to that task. The result is that a Windows Update scan on a fresh installation can chug away for literally days instead of taking just a few minutes, as it should.
Fortunately, there’s a fix. Microsoft has released updates to the servicing stack that address the slow scanning issues, and a cumulative update from April 2016 lets you catch up on nearly five years’ worth of updates with a single package.
If you’re building an offline image for distribution using System Center or other deployment tools, you can follow the instructions in this article. I’ve adapted that procedure for the types of individual installations you’re likely to make for one-off PC builds.
After a week of testing, I put together this checklist to make the process easy. If you still support Windows 7, save these instructions. They’ll come in handy.
Step 1: Download the updates you need, before you need them
Instead of using Windows Update to automatically scan for updates (that’s where the days-long delays come in), you need to download some standalone update packages that you can install individually. It’s best to do this in advance.
Be sure to choose the correct version (x86 or x64) for your installation. I recommend downloading to a local folder or a network share and then copying the files to a thumb drive or other removable media for use with the new machine, like so:
Here’s the full collection of files you need to snag, listed in the order you’ll install them:
Yes, there’s a newer update to the servicing stack, which you’ll install later as part of a cumulative update. But this package is a prerequisite for the big cumulative update that follows, and makes some crucial changes to the way Windows 7 processes updates, and it paves the way for…
This is the whopper of a cumulative update, released in April 2016, that includes most of the updates released after the general availability of Service Pack 1 in 2011. Which updates are not included? The More Information section of the link above notes that this large package (488 MB for the x64 package and 323 MB for the x86 version) does not include a few dozen updates that change the behavior of Windows, require additional registry modifications, or aren’t widely applicable.
Go through that list and make a note of any updates you might need to download and install separately.
These are functional update rollups whose contents are not included in later cumulative updates. The most important fix is an optimization for the Windows Update agent that addresses those painfully long scan times. Note that the July update rollup was re-released in September 2016.
This package, which also contains the September 2016 functional update rollup, is the first release in Microsoft’s new series of cumulative monthly updates. Monthly releases after this one will include updates going back to this one. That means you could substitute the most recent cumulative update for this one; however, I recommend installing this one and then using Windows Update to get the most recent cumulative update and get fully caught up.
This package is optional but advisable if you plan to use Internet Explorer at all.
With that prep work out of the way, you’re ready to move on.
Step 2: Install Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 without connecting to a network
Leave the network cable unplugged while you install Windows 7 using media that includes Service Pack 1. If you’re working with a notebook, don’t connect to a wireless network yet.
After the installation is complete and you’ve signed into an account with administrative privileges, insert the thumb drive containing the files you downloaded earlier and copy them to a local drive.
Step 3: Install the standalone update packages offline
The order of installation matters. Be sure to install the April 2015 servicing stack first, followed by the cumulative update package and then the monthly update rollups.
Although you’re prompted to restart after some of these installations, it’s not necessary. Feel free to reboot if you’re superstitious about these things, but I had no issues installing each standalone update and then allowing the full collection to complete the update process as part of the restart.
After restarting you’re ready for the final step.
Step 4: Connect to the internet and check for updates
With those cumulative updates all successfully installed, the scan should go quickly (under five minutes, in my experience, depending on hardware) and the list should be manageable. Download and install the remaining updates. Be sure to restart and check again to get some esoteric but necessary packages, such as .NET security updates.
And with that, you’re done–in hours rather than days or even weeks.