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Microsoft's latest Windows update breaks multi-monitor gaming

With Windows-as-a-service, you never need to worry about installing a patch because every Microsoft patch is guaranteed, 100%, to always work, never cause problems, and certainly never break previous functionality. That, at least, is the official corporate line. Microsoft’s ability to deliver on that promise is highly questionable to nonexistent, as evidenced by a new problem baked into the January 10, 2017 build (KB3213986 (OS Build 14393.693)).

The KB article includes a number of new features and improvements (better Groove Music streaming and improved Remote Desktop reliability), better handling of multiple input devices, and a host of other low-level issues. Unfortunately, it also added a few new problems to the mix. Specifically: “Users may experience delayed or clipped screens while running 3D rendering apps (such as games) on systems with more than one monitor.” Microsoft’s suggested workarounds are to run your games in windowed mode or to start a game with just one monitor connected — which is just what everyone who games on multiple monitors is going to want to do.

In the past, we’d simply recommend not installing this update. Now, Microsoft makes you take the update whether you want it or not. Sure, you can uninstall some updates and flag them as incompatible with your system, but this assumes that the end user is aware that an update has been installed and knows how to uninstall it and flag it as problematic in the future. What’s more likely is that at least some people wind up with nonfunctional multi-monitor gaming setups, at least until they stumble on this issue.

We’ve been talking about the problem of forced non-security updates since Windows 10 launched, so I won’t belabor the point again here. Instead, I’d like to point out that the issue here isn’t even just a question of forcing an update — it’s about forcing updates that break existing system configurations. If you’ve used Microsoft Windows for any length of time, you’re aware that the OS has its own built-in mechanisms for determining which software and hardware are already installed in your machine. Try to install a Windows Update that’s already been installed, and the computer informs you of that fact. Try to install an application, and you get a similar message. If you try to install old graphics drivers on top of newer drivers and you’ll get an error message. Windows is required to know how many displays you have connected to it, or it wouldn’t be able to offer color profile management or an appropriately scaled desktop. Similarly, the OS has to remember which windows belong on which screens to display information appropriately and it has information on what kind of GPU is installed.

There is, in other words, no reason why Microsoft should be pushing this update as mandatory for people who game on multiple displays. In fact, given the company’s 18-month fetish for telemetry collection, there’s no reason why Redmond couldn’t notify gamers that they may not be able to play certain titles without using workarounds to do so. This hits one of the most annoying points of these so-called “service” models — despite calling it a “service,” the service doesn’t actually serve the end customer. If Microsoft wanted to get end-users onboard with its telemetry collection, it could start by using that data in ways that actually improve their customer experience.

But since Microsoft doesn’t do that, if you’re a widescreen gamer, your choices are to disable Windows Update altogether or to hope this update doesn’t impact any titles you like playing in that configuration. There aren’t many people playing games on more than one monitor, to be sure, but this kind of regression is why people don’t like mandatory updates in the first place. We’ve seen some signs of late that MS is bending a bit on this issue by giving people the ability to defer updates by 35 days once the Creators Update (Redstone 2) drops later this year. Hopefully that’s just the first step back towards a more sane update policy.

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