What Is a Patch?

Definition of a patch & how to download/install software patches

A patch, sometimes just called a fix, is a small piece of software that's used to correct a problem, usually called a bug, within an operating system or software program.

No software program is perfect and so patches are common, even years after a program has been released. The more popular a program is, the more likely rare problems are found, and so some of the most popular programs in existence are some of the most patched.

A collection of usually already-released patches is often called a service pack.

Image of a laptop with bugs, some of which have bandages on them
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Do I Need to Install Patches?

Software patches normally fix bugs, but they can also be released to address security vulnerabilities and inconsistencies in a piece of software. Skipping over these important updates can leave your computer, phone, or other device open to malware attacks that the patch is intended to prevent.

Some patches aren't so critical but still important, adding new features or pushing updates to device drivers. So again, avoiding patches will, over time, leave the software at a greater risk of attacks but also outdated and possibly incompatible with newer devices and software.

How Do I Download & Install Software Patches?

Major software companies periodically release patches, usually downloadable from the internet, that correct very specific problems in their software programs.

These downloads can be very small (a few KB) or very large (hundreds of MB or more). The file size of a patch depends entirely on what it's for and how many fixes it will address.

Windows Patches

In Windows, most patches, fixes, and hotfixes are made available via Windows Update. Microsoft typically releases their security-related patches once per month on Patch Tuesday.

While rare, some patches can actually cause more problems than you had before they were applied, usually because a driver or a piece of software you have installed has some kind of issue with changes the updates made.

Patches pushed by Microsoft for Windows and their other programs aren't the only patches that sometimes wreak havoc. Patches that are issued for antivirus programs and other non-Microsoft programs cause problems as well, for similar reasons.

Botched patching even happens on other devices like smartphones, tablets, etc.

Other Software Patches

Patches for software that you've installed to your computer, like your antivirus program, are normally downloaded and installed automatically in the background. Depending on the specific program, and what type of patch it is, you might be notified of the update, but often times it happens behind the scenes, without your knowledge.

Other programs that don't update regularly, or don't update automatically, will need to have their patches installed manually. One easy way to check for patches is to use a free software updater tool. These tools, such as the aptly named Patch My PC Updater, can scan all the programs on your computer and look for any that require patching.

Mobile devices even require patches. No doubt you've seen this happen on your Apple or Android phone. Your mobile apps themselves get patched all the time, too, usually with little knowledge by you and often times to fix bugs.

Updates to the drivers for your computer's hardware are sometimes offered to enable new features, but most of the time are made to fix software bugs. See how to update drivers in Windows for instructions on keeping your device drivers patched and up to date.

Some patches are exclusive to registered or paying users, but this isn't very common. For example, an update to an older piece of software that fixes security issues and enables compatibility with newer versions of Windows may be available, but only if you pay for the patch. Again, this isn't common and usually only happens with corporate software.

An unofficial patch is another type of software patch that's released by a third party. Unofficial patches are typically released in abandonware situations where the original developer has quit updating a piece of software or because they're taking too long to release the official patch.

Much like computer software, even video games often require patches. Video game patches can be downloaded just like any other type of software—usually manually from the developer's website, but sometimes either automatically through an in-game update or from a third-party source.

A patch that addresses a very small issue or that's intended to perform a cleanup procedure, is sometimes called a point release. In turn, such a patch might change the software's version number from something like 1.2.0 to 1.2.1.

Hotfixes vs. Patches

The term hotfix is often used synonymously with patch and fix, but usually only because it gives the impression of something happening quickly or proactively.

Originally, the term hotfix was used to describe a kind of patch that could be applied without stopping or restarting a service or system.

Microsoft usually uses the term hotfix to refer to a small update addressing a very specific, and often very serious, issue.

  • What is the difference between a patch and an upgrade?

    The main difference between a patch and an upgrade is that patches help software run as originally intended, while software upgrades add new previously unavailable features

  • What is patch management software?

    Large organizations use patch management software programs to ensure that all of their IT infrastructure components are up-to-date. These programs constantly look for updates and apply them automatically.

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