Everything You Wanted to Know About the Windows Insider Program

So, you want to know all there is to know about what the Windows Insider Program is, how to join it, and what all these ‘channels’ mean, right? For example, I’m sure one of your provocative questions is this: If I start on Windows 10 21H1, and join the Beta channel, will that upgrade me to Windows 11? (Hint: Maybe…it’s not that easy…)

In my previous post on this subject, I wrote about the Windows Insider Program for Business. The Windows Insider Program for Business is for IT Pros managing and administering Windows 10 and 11 Insider builds for their test devices and users.

In this post, I will give a broader, general overview of what the Windows Insider Program (WIP) is, how to join it, how to choose the best ‘Channel’ for your specific needs, and even try to make sense of when to get off the Insider train, and when it’s safe to jump back on. Let’s get started!

What is the Windows Insider Program?

The Windows Insider Program is a free and open software testing program that lets users test pre-release versions of Windows before they are made generally available. To participate in the program, you must have a valid Windows 10 or Windows 11 license.

To register for the Windows Insider Program, you need a Microsoft Account. Once you are registered, program participants get access to new Windows features, expert tips and insights, and contests and events.

Windows Insider Program history

On September 30, 2014, Terry Myerson, a senior leader on Microsoft’s Windows engineering team, announced the Windows Insider Program alongside the announcement of Windows 10. The very next day, October 1, Microsoft released the first Windows 10 Insider build (9841).

During the development of Windows 8, the Windows senior leaders were more protective of their ‘keys to the kingdom’. There were only a handful of public preview releases of Windows 8. So, testers didn’t feel as valued in terms of making contributions to the essence of Windows, and reporting bugs and issues during its development.

Terry wanted to ‘open up’ the kingdom and let the public have a more direct role in bringing Windows 10 to market. Thus, the WIP was born. This allowed tech enthusiasts to get almost weekly builds of Windows 10 during its development and engineering.

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As I write this, we’re tiptoeing on the 7th anniversary of this program’s birth. (Wow!) The program has undergone many changes. The third head of the Windows Insider Program took command in March of 2020. Initially, they introduced the Fast and Slow rings. Then, they added the Release Preview ring.

Then came the ‘Skip Ahead’ ring. (This would take an entire post to explain…basically, as the Fast ring was getting builds towards the end of the development cycle of the next Feature Update to Windows 10, Insiders could ‘skip ahead’ and start seeing the initial ‘prerelease’ builds from the NEXT upcoming Feature Update. Yes. I know.)

The Skip Ahead ring was retired. Soon, they renamed the rings to Channels. We now have the Dev Channel, the Beta Channel, and the Release Preview Channel.

The Dev, Beta, and Release Preview Channels

The Dev (formerly Fast) Channel is for the crazy people that want the earliest peek at the builds from Microsoft’s ‘development’ branch. Wait… What’s a ‘branch’?

A branch here describes a specific aspect of the underlying code that makes up an operating system like Windows 10. There are many different branches used in the designing, building, and assembly of Windows. Besides prerelease, there are many different codenames for branches that are tied to a specific Feature Update.

For example, Windows 10 version 21H1 was from the Iron branch. You may have seen ‘fe_release’ on the desktop watermark when testing the development builds for 21H1. All the different code changes that go into the shell, the Start Menu, printing, graphics, sound, RSAT tools, the taskbar, and countless others all get their own branch.

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Towards the end of the development of a Feature Update, all these code changes, after they pass quality control in their teams, get incorporated into the core code, the ‘main’ branch. At that point, the real nitty-gritty testing needs to start.

And this is the time you’ll likely discover the most issues as all the different aspects of the operating system are now thrust onto the court at once, to determine if everyone works nice and plays well with others.

Traditionally, the Dev Channel was susceptible to the most bugs and potential blockers of key features. Only if you were running a test machine or a virtual machine were you suggested joining the Dev channel. As of this writing, Insiders on the Dev channel are testing the next version of Windows 11, expected in the Fall of 2022.

The initial release of Windows 11, due on Oct 5, has already been finalized. Disclaimer: You will not be offered these latest builds if your system (physical or virtual) does not meet the minimum system requirements for Windows 11.

Builds that are released to the Beta Channel have gone through more testing. This allows specific bugs to be discovered and to offer more stability.

As of this writing, if you join the Beta Channel, you will get the final (expected) build of Windows 11, to start rolling out October 5th. Disclaimer: You will not be offered these builds if your system (physical or virtual) does not meet the minimum system requirements of Windows 11.

The Release Preview Channel is for very laid-back people. If you stay out of the water, even if there are only 1-2 foot waves, this is for you. Usually, about 3-5 weeks before the upcoming public release of a new Feature Update to Windows, Insiders in this channel will be offered that ‘final’ build.

The Release Preview Channel is the last chance that Microsoft has to catch any remaining critical security issues, data-deleting bugs, or showstopper calamities.

Microsoft Windows Hero

As of this writing, well, it’s not that easy. (Yes, this is fun beyond belief). Let me explain. No, really, I can do this.

If you were originally in the Beta Channel throughout August and September in 2021, running test builds of Windows 10 version 21H1, and your system was found to NOT meet the minimum requirements for Windows 11, you got bumped down to Release Preview.

You were then offered to test the upgrade from Windows 10 version 21H1 to Windows 10 version 21H2. (Build 19043 -> 19044)

Now, if you were running Windows 10 version 21H1, and your system did meet the requirements for Windows 11, you got offered Windows 11, build 22000.194 a few weeks ago. This makes sense…as this is the pending public release of Windows 11 to be made available October 5.

See, if you can wrap your head around the engineering of this program, eventually things make sense.

What’s Next and how to join the Windows Insider Program

I hope you learned something new about the Windows Insider Program. My next post on this subject will demonstrate how to join the Windows Insider Program and show you how the various channels will affect what version of Windows you will receive when checking for updates in Windows Update.

Feel free to leave any comments or questions about the WIP and if you want any topic here discussed in more detail. You can also ask me on Twitter!