The long journey of every Windows 10 build

Windows 10 is only a few years old, but it’s already quite fragmented into several different versions. But even within these, not everything is the same.

Because Microsoft is always looking forward towards the next major release of Windows 10, it offers beta versions (aka Insider Previews) for those willing to test them. On the flip side, businesses that use Windows 10 need stability and don’t care about regular feature updates. Thus, the company provides various branches to keep everyone happy.

Let’s take a look at three major ways that Windows distributes updates: Insider rings, long-term servicing branches, and Windows Update tools.

Windows Insider Rings

Windows Insiders are the first ones to install and test a new version of Windows 10. When a major release like the Creators Update rolls out to the public, Insiders have already used it for months. This symbiotic system lets Windows geeks try new features before anyone else and helps Microsoft receive feedback on new versions.

But it’s not as simple as flipping a switch and jumping on an Insider build. Microsoft offers several different “rings” that correspond to various levels of stability. Here’s a diagram of this from a recent Windows Insider event, where rings on the left are less stable:

Diving deep into this process is too detailed for this article. For example, the Canary build is at the bleeding edge of development and is only available to Microsoft developers. However, it’s worth mentioning the important public rings:

Fast: This is the most cutting-edge that Insiders can get. Once internal Microsoft testing has approved a new build, those on the Fast ring receive it on their devices. Thus they gain access to new features sooner, but this build is more likely to contain problems. Since there isn’t much help available for these brand-new features online, this isn’t for the faint of heart.

Slow: Once the Fast ring users have tried out a build, it moves to the Slow ring. When a build hits this point, some of the worst issues are ironed out. This is the default ring if you’re just getting into the Insider program. It lets you try out new features well before public release without as much risk.

Release Preview: The most stable Insider ring isn’t really a development branch at all. Instead of an in-progress version of Windows, those on the Release Preview simply receive small updates to the stable version of Windows 10 faster. A few times a month, Microsoft releases general patches that fix bugs, improve security, and make small improvements. Eventually, everyone will get these, but those on this ring get them sooner.

Skip Ahead: Microsoft recently opened up the Skip Ahead option to Insiders on the Fast ring. If you opt-in, this lets you choose to skip testing the current build of Windows and skip ahead to the next release. Currently, Windows Insiders are testing the Fall Creators Update and will receive more and more stable builds until its eventual public release. Those who choose to Skip Ahead will soon receive builds of the next major version after the Creators Update — meaning they will get a fresh, bug-filled build soon.

The Insider program is completely optional, and it’s probably a good idea to avoid it unless you don’t mind dealing with some bugs. But it’s interesting that when you choose to test new builds early, you can decide how recent you want them.

Windows 10 Branches

While the Insider rings are focused on exciting new developments, the Long Term Servicing Branch instead prioritizes stability. As you might know, Windows 10 has several branches that control how its updates roll out. Three main branches are available for normal users:

Current Branch: The normal, stable version of Windows 10. Current Branch PCs receive feature updates (like the Creators Update) after Microsoft has tested and released them to the public. Most users are on this branch.
Current Branch for Business: If you’re running Windows 10 Pro, you can select an option to defer upgrades. You’ll continue to receive security patches, but you won’t get feature updates until several months after the Current Branch gets them. This is a more conservative option that lets you make sure that problems with a big update don’t affect your PC.

Insider Preview: As mentioned above, joining the Windows 10 Insider Program lets you download and test major updates before they hit the Current Branch. These beta versions may contain bugs and thus you shouldn’t use this branch on your main machine. But providing feedback to Microsoft about the new features helps make them better for their official releases.

But there’s a fourth branch, called the Long Term Servicing Branch or LTSB. While home users can switch between the three above branches (Windows 10 Pro required for deferring) just by adjusting a few settings, LTSB is only available for Windows 10 Enterprise. And you have to install and update it manually through installation media.

What the LTSB Is For

So what sets the LTSB apart? As the name suggests, it’s a branch that’s even slower than the above three. Microsoft offers this for machines that prioritize stability over new features.

For example, a business that has a PC controlling sensitive equipment on a machine floor doesn’t care if Microsoft Edge now supports extensions. They want that PC to run an extremely stable version of Windows that isn’t going to automatically upgrade all the time and break mission-critical functionality.

The LTSB doesn’t even include new Windows 10 features like Edge and Store apps. This makes sense, as PCs running it will likely receive configuration once and become set-and-forget. Nobody should use a PC with this branch installed for checking email.

This Windows branch still receives security updates to keep it safe. But feature updates, like the Fall Creators Update, won’t hit the LTSB. Microsoft plans to release a new version of the LTSB every two to three years, and each version will receive support for 10 years.

Windows Update Tools

As if the above extremes weren’t enough, Microsoft also provides several different Windows Update tools. These let IT staff control exactly how business computers receive everyday Windows updates. Like many facets of Windows in a business environment, this can become complicated pretty quickly, so we’ll take a brief survey of the available options.

The basic Windows Update utility that comes standard with Windows only offers businesses one option: deferring upgrades. As we mentioned above, you simply have to check a box in the Windows Update Settings panel and major updates won’t hit your PC for a few extra months. This helps businesses avoid the issues that crop up with every new Windows 10 release.

Microsoft also offers Windows Update for Business. This expanded tool lets IT professionals use Group Policy to adjust update settings on many computers at once. Instead of a binary checkbox, a company can put off major updates for up to an entire year. Especially slow-moving environments should appreciate this.

Enterprise-Scale Updates

Both of the above options are relatively straightforward for small businesses to take advantage of. For a larger scale, Windows Server Update Services provides even more control. It’s part of the Windows Server operating system (OS), so a company needs a server installed to utilize this centralized management. In addition to deferral, this option allows a company to add an approval layer for major updates. They can even apply new updates first to a specific group of PCs before rolling them out to the entire company.

The most powerful option is the System Center Configuration Manager. It gives IT providers yet more control over updates, including fine-tuned deployment options and even specifying when the updates roll out and how much bandwidth they use.

Unless you’re responsible for managing Windows 10 in a business environment, these options are pretty confusing. As a home user, you probably wait until Windows offers you the latest update and then install it when you can. But it’s a lot more to consider in a corporate setting.

Most employees don’t need the latest features of Windows 10 to do their jobs productively. And while new issues in the most recent Windows release might have been a minor inconvenience for you, they could slow a business to a crawl. Thus IT pros need these tools so they can control exactly when Windows receives new updates and what machines get them.

Of course, this is a lot to keep track of even for the most knowledgeable tech workers. And Microsoft changes these options regularly, so nothing is really permanent. Thus it’s no surprise that this level of complexity can create issues.

No One True Windows

When you take a peek behind the many channels and distributions, it’s clear that there’s no set version of Windows 10 that everyone runs. Enthusiasts might be testing an Insider preview, while a business runs the Long Term Branch. Meanwhile, two different companies can have two totally different builds of Windows 10 in use based on how they receive updates.

In the end, these differences create confusion but the casual observer probably can’t tell the difference between minor Windows 10 builds anyway. Little tweaks around the OS don’t change the basics of launching programs, the Start Menu, and your favorite keyboard shortcuts. Time will tell if Windows 10’s split personality ends up a strength or weakness.

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