A couple of weeks ago, my notebook lost its ability to connect to AT&T's 3G data network. Downloading and installing the latest version of the company's communications management application restored the network link. (I had to use the notebook's built-in Wi-Fi adapter to download the program, of course.)
Just yesterday, my iPhone started acting up: the screen would freeze, and phone calls wouldn't hang up, among other symptoms. Once I connected the device to a PC and downloaded the most recent release of the iPhone software, the glitches disappeared.
If only all PC problems could be solved simply by reinstalling the software. It may be the shotgun approach to hardware and software troubleshooting, but sometimes a software refresh will clear out whatever cobwebs were futzing up the works.
You don't have to wait until your devices or applications start to act up to update them, however. Scanning your system for out-of-date programs can help you avoid trouble by pointing out the unpatched security holes on your PC.
In the past, I have recommended Secunia's online software scan and the PC-based version, the free Personal Software Inspector. I use Secunia's online scanner to get a snapshot of my software's update status. But rather than applying any necessary patches via Secunia's service, I go to the vendor's site to download the latest version.
For example, my most recent Secunia scan indicated that Apple's iTunes and QuickTime, Adobe Systems' Flash player, and Sun Microsystems' Java Platform were out-of-date. I opened the Apple Software Update app to get the latest versions of iTunes, QuickTime, and the Safari browser (which Secunia did not identify as out-of-date).
I also visited Adobe's site to get the latest release of the Flash player and Sun's site for a Java update, but Secunia's scanner still identified these programs as vulnerable. It turns out, the old versions of Flash and Java aren't uninstalled when the new versions are added.
You can remove old versions of the Flash player by downloading and running Adobe's Flash Player Uninstaller (scroll to the bottom of the page to find the uninstaller download).
The Java site claims that you should retain old versions of the Java Runtime Environment because some older apps may be incompatible with more recent releases. Still, if you're running out of disk space, you can remove old Java versions via Windows' Add or Remove Programs Control Panel applet (or Vista's Programs and Features).
On my year-old notebook, there are six different Java versions, each using about 136MB of disk space. To play it safe, keep at least the last two Java releases installed.
Secunia's online scanner gives you the option of checking "Enable thorough system inspection" to have the scanner look for applications in nondefault locations. Using this option can add several minutes to the scan--with the option unchecked, the scan usually takes only a few seconds to complete.
The in-depth scan did uncover a handful of outdated applications on my PC that the online scanner missed, though none posed the same security threat as the old versions of the iTunes/QuickTime and Flash player did. Still, the patches are free, so why not?