How to choose the best Windows 10 release channel?

By ivan.diskin | January 24, 2020 |

greater than 13 minutes

Microsoft generally offers individuals and organizations several options for Windows updates, but given the Windows Update nomenclature these days, the users and administrators are often confused when they have to make the decisions. By the time you are done going through this guide, you will be able to choose the best update method for your personal computer or business device.

In the early ages – when Windows Update first became a thing – the decision to be made was quite simple. All you had to do was let Microsoft decide what was best for you based on the available release cycle. However, in modern times, there are multiple versions of rings and branches and other cycle or period terms, which most people know nothing about.

We intend to show you how to take control of Windows 10 updates and upgrades. The first part of this guide on choosing the best Windows 10 release channel is directed at individuals, while the other section is focused on the same explanations for IT admins.

Choosing the best Windows 10 release channel for your personal computer (for individuals)

Here, if you intend to use Windows 10 the same way regular users do – which means you are unlikely to be interested in getting the latest Windows 10 updates before they get released to the general public – then you do not need to do anything. Windows is programmed to check for updates automatically – on its own or without any input from you – and this means you are good.

Well, if you want some influence over the times Windows goes about checking for updates and installing them, then you have to see the guides on stopping or deferring Windows updates.

If you plan to use Windows 10 on your computer on a personal level but enjoy getting sneak peeks at new features or functionalities before they get released to the public (or implemented in a new Windows build), then you have to make changes to your computer and perform some tasks. Most importantly, you must sign up for the Windows Insider program. Microsoft provides people on that program with early releases (or versions) of the latest Windows updates. The releases are commonly referred to as Insider Preview builds.

We must warn you of certain things, though. The updates embedded in the Insider Preview builds tend to be buggy and may harm your computer. The new stuff corresponds to the beta release, after all. Furthermore, the new features or functionalities might not even work properly – and that is if you even get them to work at all. The Windows operating system running on your device might become unstable, and the same thing goes for applications and their functions. Windows might freeze or crash; your programs too might suffer the same fate.

We advise that you think long and deep about the Windows Insider program before you move on to sign up. If you must do it, then we recommend you set things up for a second or third PC and work from there. If you cannot get other devices, then you will do well to run Windows 10 as a virtual machine and have your fun in that isolated environment.

To sign up for the Windows Insider program, you have to fire up your browser and head to the Windows Insider program page, click on the Register your personal account button there, and then follow the on-screen instructions to complete your registration. Once you do everything correctly, then you will be allowed into the Windows Insider program, which means you get to enjoy perks like early Windows releases.

Besides signing up for the program on its webpage, you still have to perform other tasks that go beyond just the registration. For example, you will have to go inside the computer on which you intend to get Windows Insider updates. You then must configure that PC to get the relevant updates and instruct it to refuse the remaining releases. With this setup, you can program Windows to allow updates on some of your computers while it rejects them on others.

For example, you might decide against configuring your main PC to get the Windows updates meant for users on the Insider program – so that it remains stable and free from issues or complications – while you configure other computers to get those potentially problematic updates. You can even go a step further with the setup permutations and configure different PCs to get updates on specific rings (that differ from one another).

These are the instructions you must follow to instruct Windows on a specific PC to fetch the releases:

  • First, you have to launch Settings. This keyboard shortcut is commonly employed to perform this task quickly: Windows logo button + letter I.
  • Once the Settings window shows up, you must click on Update and Security. On the following screen, you go through the items listed close to the left-pane and then click on Windows Insider Program.
  • On the right pane, you should see the Get started button, which you have to click on to begin.

All you have to do at this point is follow the on-screen prompts (as they appear).

  • In the end, you will have to click on the Confirm button. Windows will also ask you to schedule a time for your PC to restart.

If you do not mind restarting right away, you can do it now.

  • Here, assuming your PC has restarted, you must launch the Settings program and navigate through the same menus or options (above) to get to the Windows Insider screen, and there you will see three different Windows Insider rings.

The rings are usually the Fast Ring, the Slow Ring, and the Release Preview Ring. You will have to choose one of them. Anyway, your choice should be determined by your appetite for risks or how much you are interested in getting the latest Windows updates quickly.

We will now give the necessary descriptions of the three rings.

  1. The Fast Ring: From its name, one could figure out what this ring entails. By “fast”, it means that users – that are on it – get to know about new features before everybody else. Unfortunately, since Fast Ring releases are the earliest of the lot, they are generally the least tested and the most unstable Windows builds. Moreover, a good number of the features that appear in Fast Ring releases are experimental, which means they get killed off before most of the public hears anything about them.Well, our advice here is basically this: choose Fast Ring only if you want to get the latest Windows updates as quickly as possible before other categories of users.
  1. The Slow Ring: Users on this ring are safer than those living dangerously on the Fast ring. If you want to see Windows updates before regular users do but do not want to contend with the downsides associated with the Fast ring, then you will do well to choose the Slow ring. After all, Slow Ring updates are generally more tested than Fast Ring Windows builds, which means more bugs have been eliminated in the former.

Windows updates specific to the Fast ring do not make it into the Slow ring because they are too buggy (in the first place). From what we know, Slow Ring updates are issued once every six weeks or thereabouts. It is easy to see why Slow Ring updates are more stable than Fast Ring updates. Slow Ring releases also cause fewer system problems for users.

  1. The Release Preview Ring: This ring is easily the safest of the options available to users on the Windows Insider program. If you go with it, then you will get faster access to driver updates, updates for Windows Store applications, and system updates for Windows. In theory, Release Preview Ring releases are bug-free, or at least they are supposed to be as bug-free as possible. However, there are no guarantees to be found.

Anyway, when you are a Windows Insider on the Release Preview ring, you will not get a sneak peek at the features or functionalities that Microsoft plans to introduce or implement in the next Windows version. Early maintenance updates are basically what you signed up for here. Exceptions to the postulates stated here sometimes come into play, though. For example, Microsoft released the Windows 10 Creators Update to people on the Release Preview ring on March 30, 2017, which was a good number of days before Microsoft allowed all categories of users – who wanted the new Windows build – to download and install it through the Microsoft Update Assistant utility. This means they got to play around with it a bit before Microsoft moved on to introduce it to the rest of the world.

Choosing the best Windows 10 release channel for your business (for administrators or firms)

IT administrators or business managers typically contend with two basic needs when Windows Update is involved. For one, they always need to know what sort of changes are being made to the Windows code or environment (long before they happen) so that they can make preparations for the new stuff in terms of support and other things that matter. For another, they need to determine the right channel for the deployment of updates to enterprise users.

If you go through those statements carefully, you will notice that the two needs are at odds with each other. To check out the latest preview version, one has to test risky or buggy software, but the deployment of Windows updates demands a conservative approach to ensure that no device or individual suffers harm. In other words, IT administrators or business managers have to determine what goes based on the two different choices available to solve problems that also differ from one another.

How to test incoming Windows updates

If the need to test Windows updates arises, you can employ the same technique used by individual users to get the latest Windows updates. We mean you can join the Windows Insider program and then proceed to choose one among the Fast Ring, Slow Ring, and Release Preview Ring options for gaining access to Windows Insider Preview Builds. If there are any differences, they will be somewhat manageable at least. For example, you will have to sign up for the Windows Insider Program for Business, and not the one for individuals or regular users.

To sign up, you have to fire up your web browser, head to the Windows Insider Program page, and then click on the Register your organization button. Similarly, you must make certain changes to your computer and perform some tasks on the device for which you are setting up things.

When you want to instruct Windows on a specific PC to fetch the releases available, these are the instructions you must go through:

First, you have to open Settings. You can use this keyboard shortcut to do the job here: Windows logo button + letter I.

  • After the Settings window shows up, you must click on Update and Security. On the screen that follows, you must check the items listed close to the left-pane area and then click on Windows Insider Program.
  • On the right pane, you must check for the Get started button, which you have to click on for obvious reasons. Windows is supposed to ask you to log in using your business account or organization profile.

At this stage, you just have to follow the on-screen prompts (as they appear) and everything should go smoothly.

  • In the end, you will see the Confirm button. After you click on this button, Windows will also ask you to schedule a time for your PC to restart.

If you do not mind restarting right away, you can give the go-ahead for the restart operation now.

  • Here, assuming your PC has rebooted, you must bring up the Settings program and navigate through the same menus or options (above) to get to the Windows Insider screen, and there you will see three different Windows Insider rings.

The rings are usually the Fast ring, the Slow ring, and the Release Preview ring. You will have to choose one of them. Anyway, your choice should be determined by your appetite for risks or how much you are interested in getting the latest Windows updates quickly.

We already covered the most important things to know about the rings in the previous section of this guide. You can scroll up to see the descriptions. Nevertheless, you are likely to find some additional information on each ring useful – since you are an IT admin or business manager – so we will expand a bit on the points already made about the Windows Insider options.

  1. The Fast Ring: This ring is unlikely to be the best option for you to use – given your work as an IT administrator – and our warning here has little to do with the Fast Ring releases being the buggiest of Windows builds. In the Fast ring, Microsoft tends to introduce features, utilities, or settings most of which get discarded eventually. Well, this implies that IT admins on the Fast ring will end up wasting their time testing out and making preparations for stuff they will never use.

If you are the kind of administrator (or manager) who is interested in influencing the future of Windows (or the direction Windows goes for businesses), then you might want to go with the Fast ring. There, you will be able to send feedback to Microsoft early enough (in the Windows development cycle), which means you somehow get a say on things before features are hardwired into the Windows operating system.

  1. The Slow Ring: We believe the Slow ring is the best option for IT admins and business managers, especially from a technical point of view. For one, Slow Ring Windows builds tend to be stable (considerably more stable than the equivalents on the Fast ring), and for another, there is a good chance any feature you see in Slow Ring Windows releases is going to make it into the eventual Windows update (for everyone).

By choosing the Slow ring, you get informed on the stuff coming to Windows without you having to waste your time testing the features, utilities, or settings that are doomed not to make it into the final Windows update. In other words, with this option, you gain a lot while not losing much.

  1. The Release Preview Ring: This ring probably constitutes the most conservative option for IT admins or business managers. Of course, Release Preview Ring Windows builds are easily the most stable releases. They also almost always have the good stuff that ends up in the eventual Windows update. Nevertheless, if you go with the Release Preview ring, you will not get many heads-up regarding new Windows features, settings, or utilities. In other words, you will not have much time or even get the opportunity to become familiarized with the changes or additions in Windows.

How to deploy Windows updates

After Windows 10 got released, Microsoft began to use the Current Branch (CB) and Current Branch for Business (CBB) terms to describe its main release channels for the major Windows updates. Releases or Windows builds got filled under the Current Branch on the day they were launched officially, which was the same date Microsoft started rolling them out to consumers. Some months later – especially after Microsoft engineers worked to iron out the initial bugs – the firm then considered the releases stable enough to be issued to enterprises, which meant (at that point) the releases finally got filled under the Current Branch for Business phase.

Microsoft, however, later made changes to the nomenclature. The Current Branch (CB) and Current Branch for Business (CBB) terms were replaced with Semi-Annual Channel (Pilot) and Semi-Annual Channel (Broad). We figured out that Microsoft chose the ‘semi-annual’ term after it became committed to rolling out significant feature updates to Windows 10 (or major Windows 10 releases) twice in a year. In some posts, the strategy was referred to as ‘Windows as a service’.

To be fair, we already saw the expected events play out in some ways (or at some level). For example, in the year 2017, Microsoft rolled out the Windows 10 Creators Update to users in the spring and then proceeded to release the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update around autumn that same year.

Anyway, you might be interested in the Long-Term Servicing Branch channel, which is supposed to be available to customers with devices running Windows 10 Enterprise. Here, the computers get feature updates once (only) every two or three years. Nevertheless, going by what Microsoft has said time and again, the plan here is directed at organizations that own specialized or unique devices such as ATMs or medical equipment. We believe most IT administrators or business managers are concerned with the releases that correspond to the two Semi-Annual Channels.

Typically, when Microsoft releases a Windows feature update (or major Windows build) to the public, the firm rolls it out for businesses into the Semi-Annual Channel (Pilot). Well, this implies that the update is meant for usage in enterprises for small (pilot) programs, and not for general deployment.

After four months go by, Microsoft will have worked out the bugs and determined that the update is as safe and stable as possible for businesses and organizations, which means Microsoft will then promote the update to the Semi-Annual (Broad) phase. At that point, companies will not be scared to deploy it widely. Nevertheless, firms are hardly obligated to deploy it to all their users or departments. It was just important that we clarified that Microsoft’s pushes the update to the Broad channel when it believes the update is suitable for enterprises.

As an admin, you still have the option of staggering the deployment of Windows updates. Here, you can configure a reasonable number of test devices to install the new update while the release is still in the Semi-Annual Channel (Pilot) program. Make a small group of trusted people test out the new update and evaluate it when it enters the Semi-Annual Channel (Broad) phase. After the standard waiting period (of 4 months) goes by, then you can roll it out to the bulk of users or departments in your organization.

If you have mission-critical devices or computers that are not allowed to fail, then you will do well to wait even longer before you install the updates on them. We recommend you install the updates on such machines only after the releases have been thoroughly tested and vetted by the majority of the departments that matter in your organization.

Nevertheless, there is a small chance the proposed staggered deployment schedule gets complicated, given Microsoft’s two-times-a-year major update rollout plan, which appears to be rapid in this sense. The pilot group, for example, might end up testing the latest Windows build well before the critical group completes their checks on the previous Windows release. You must also be mindful of the fact that Microsoft’s projected 18 month support period for each Windows update starts counting once the release enters the Semi-Annual (Pilot) Channel. Here, it means the more time you spend testing and verifying stuff before you roll out a specific update, the shorter the period where you get to enjoy security patches and bug fixes for that update.

TIP:

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