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How to protect your PC from the major Meltdown and Spectre CPU flaws

A pair of nasty CPU flaws exposed this week have serious ramifications for home computer users. Meltdown and Spectre let attackers access protected information in your PC’s kernel memory, potentially revealing sensitive details like passwords, cryptographic keys, personal photos and email, or anything else you’ve used on your computer. It’s a serious flaw. Fortunately, CPU and operating system vendors pushed out patches fast, and you can protect your PC from Meltdown and Spectre to some degree.

It’s not a quick one-and-done deal, though. They’re two very different CPU flaws that touch every part of your operating system, from hardware to software to the operating system itself. Check out PCWorld’s Meltdown and Spectre FAQ for everything you need to know about the vulnerabilities themselves. We’ve cut through the technical jargon to explain what you need to know in clear, easy-to-read language. We’ve also created an overview of how the Spectre CPU bug affects phones and tablets.

The guide you’re reading now focuses solely on protecting your computer against the Meltdown and Spectre CPU flaws.

Editor’s note: This article was last updated to update the situation with antivirus conflicts and the Windows 10 patch, and to remove a link to an Intel support page for an unrelated vulnerability, SA-00086. 

How to protect your PC against Meltdown and Spectre CPU flaws

Here’s a quick step-by-step checklist, followed by the full process.

  • Update your operating system
  • Check for firmware updates
  • Update your browser
  • Keep your antivirus active

First, and most important: Update your operating system right now. The more severe flaw, Meltdown, affects “effectively every [Intel] processor since 1995,” according to the Google security researchers that discovered it. It’s an issue with the hardware itself, but the major operating system makers have rolled out updates that protect against the Meltdown CPU flaw.

windows update meltdown Brad Chacos/IDG

Where to update Windows 10.

Microsoft pushed out an emergency Windows patch late in the day on January 3. If it didn’t automatically update your PC, head to Start > Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update, then click the Check now button under “Update status.” (Alternatively, you can just search for “Windows Update,” which also works for Windows 7 and 8.) Your system should detect the available update and begin downloading it. Install the update immediately.

You might not see the update, though. Some antivirus products aren’t playing nice with the emergency patch, causing Blue Screens of Death and boot-up errors. Microsoft says it’s only “offering the Windows security updates released on January 3, 2018 to devices running anti-virus software from partners who have confirmed their software is compatible with the January 2018 Windows operating system security update.” Security researcher Kevin Beaumont is maintaining an updated list of antivirus compatibility status. Most are supported at this point. If your AV isn’t supported, do not manually download the Meltdown patch unless you turn it off and switch to Windows Defender first.

But machines with compatible antivirus still may not automatically apply the update. If you’re sure your security suite won’t bork your system, you can also download the Windows 10 KB4056892 patch directly here. You’ll need to know whether to grab the 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) version of the update. To determine if your PC runs a 32- or 64-bit version of Windows, simply type “system” (without the quotation marks) into Windows search and click the top listing. It’ll open a Control Panel window. The “System type” listing will tell you which version of Windows you’re running. Most PCs released in the past decade will be using the 64-bit operating system.

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