In order to avoid updates at unexpected times, I have tried everything, from turning updates off in the options window to setting to false everything with the word update in it in the about:config, to uninstalling the Mozilla Maintenance service, but Firefox still surprises me periodically with a pop up window that says Firefox or the computer need to be restarted to finish an upgrade.
How do I prevent it from updating automatically once and for all?
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Well first off, Firefox updates don't ever require your computer to be restarted. Firefox will need to restart, yes (it saves all your open windows and tabs) but never your computer.
Second, you don't want to fully disable updates as you are then at risk for some serious security risks. Just ignore the warnings until you reach a point where you can take 20 seconds to restart Firefox, then continue what you are doing.
If you need to restart the computer then it is likely that some files in the Firefox program folder were in use by other software (possibly security software) or otherwise locked, so Firefox couldn't update then properly.
It is not recommended to turn off upgrades. Some of the changes are security fixes and are then made public and so can be exploited.
There is no need to immediately restart Firefox to complete the upgrade when you see a popup.
It should be possible to prevent upgrades by clearing the URL used, and although I can not recommend that see /questions/929483?page=2#answer-345675
I know about upgrades and vulnerabilities. I do upgrade it, but I want to be able to control when to do it. As for clearing the value in the app.update.url, it was already done, and yet FF keeps updating!
It looks like you keep ignoring updates, which continually doing so on top of other updates causes the computer to need to be restarted. If you keep up with the updates (they are released every 6 weeks so you should be able to find 20 seconds during that 6 week interval to restart Firefox) you shouldn't have to restart your computer. Update to Firefox 23, and just keep up with updates from then on.
are there different user accounts on the computer? the settings in the user profile will only take effect for the current user, but a an update performed by one user will affect the whole machine, since firefox is installed in the program directory...