Life in the Fast Ring: A survival guide for the Windows 10 Insider Program
Want to participate in the Windows 10 development process? Join the Windows Insider Program and add your feedback. But before you sign up, know exactly what you're getting into and follow these six rules.
Perhaps the most significant change in the Windows 10 era is the emergence of a development process that actively encourages early adopters to get involved well before the official release of a new version.
Running preview builds brings with it the opportunity to share feedback with developers, via automated data collection (telemetry) and an app where Insiders can post detailed feedback and review reports submitted by others.
Microsoft launched the Windows Insider Program at the same time it announced Windows 10, offering would-be testers a chance to join the Fast Ring (frequent releases) or the Slow Ring (fewer releases and a smaller likelihood of encountering potentially annoying bugs).
Since then it has doubled down on the program, delivering preview builds of upcoming Windows 10 releases at a faster pace than ever.
Maybe a bit too fast for some.
In the pre-Windows 10 era, Microsoft typically delivered a handful of public preview builds before the official release. With Windows 8, for example, Microsoft shipped only three previews for developers and enthusiasts to get hands-on experience with in the year before its official release. Windows 7 had a single public beta followed by a release candidate. Earlier incarnations often used non-public beta programs.
Compare that leisurely schedule to the rapid tempo of Windows 10 Fast Ring releases today. For the Anniversary Update, version 1607, Microsoft delivered 27 builds to the Fast Ring in seven months of development. Insiders saw three new builds per month until the final two months, when it wasn't uncommon to see three or four new releases per week before the final build was delivered on July 18, 2016.
If you've been part of the most recent round of preview builds, you already know that that pace has continued, with three or four builds per month, on average, since the first Redstone 2 build debuted in August 2016. And if history is any guide, that tempo is about to accelerate again.
Living in the Fast Ring has been a particularly bumpy ride this year. Since the New Year, Microsoft has delivered a steady wave of Fast Ring builds with a lengthy list of new features and multiple known issues. That's made for less than smooth sailing for Insiders brave (or foolish) enough to run preview builds on a production machine.
There are very good reasons for IT pros and business computing experts to pay close attention to these Insider preview builds. For starters, you get an advance look at new features, along with an opportunity to prepare training materials so they're ready in time for the official launch.
You also get a chance to provide feedback that can influence the direction of Windows. Those public previews of earlier days were mostly marketing exercises, with features locked down many months before the previews shipped. Today, it's common to see features evolve almost in real time as Insiders provide feedback to product teams.
I've been a part of the Windows Insider Program since Day 1. It's occasionally been a wild ride, but it's been mostly satisfying and often fun.
If you're willing to endure the inevitable rough edges that come with running preview releases, you can be a part of that process, too. To maximize your chances of success, I recommend following these six rules.
One PC is not enough
In the agreement that you accept when you join the Windows Insider Program, Microsoft warns that this is "experimental and early prerelease software. ... You might experience crashes, security vulnerabilities, data loss, or damage to your device."
This is entirely accurate. If you participate in the program long enough, you will, sooner or later, get to the point where you decide to reformat and reinstall Windows to start fresh.
That testing process is much easier if you have a second PC, running the released (Current Branch) version of Windows, that you can swap in as needed. If you rely on a single PC to do all your work and can't afford any downtime, the Windows Insider Program isn't for you.
Use the cloud
The process of switching between PCs is much easier when your data is stored in the cloud. You don't have to use OneDrive or OneDrive for Business; any reliable cloud storage solution will work fine as both a backup solution and a relatively friction-free way to switch to a different device on demand.
Choose the right ring
To install Windows Insider Program preview builds on a Windows 10 PC, you first have to flip a few switches. After registering your Microsoft account at insider.windows.com, open Settings > Update & security > Windows Insider Program. Under the Get Insider Preview builds heading, click Get Started and then choose Fast or Slow.
Choosing the Fast Ring means you'll be installing new builds regularly, with an hour or more of downtime for each one. By contrast, Slow Ring releases are much less frequent and much less likely to cause chaos in your workday. (A third ring, Release Preview, is the most conservative of all. For details, see Windows 10 tip: Cut to the front of the line for the next version.)
If the pace of the Fast Ring becomes too much to handle, feel free to take a timeout. Go to Settings > Update & security > Windows Insider Program and click Stop Insider Preview Builds. That gives you the choices shown here.
You can switch to the Slow Ring, pause for a set number of days (up to 35), or exit the program completely on that device.
Read the release notes
I know this sounds a lot like RTFM, but trust me on this one. Microsoft has been deliberately more aggressive in its Fast Ring builds this year, occasionally releasing builds with known issues that might be showstoppers for some users. Build 15031, for example, was released with a bug that caused the Settings app to crash if you tried to go to the Devices section. That made it impossible to pair a Bluetooth device when running that build.
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An earlier build, 15019, was so problematic that the release notes acknowledge that the Windows "team deliberated a lot on whether to release this build to Insiders with these issues." Ultimately, they "decided to go ahead and release it as we need feedback from Insiders on other areas of the OS."
If you've opted into the Fast Ring, you might not get a chance to read the release notes before a new build is installed automatically. But be sure to read those notes before you file any feedback, and if you discover that a particular build has a bug that you can't live with, use the option in Settings > Update & security > Recovery to roll back to the previous build. Then pause while you wait for a new build to arrive.
The release notes for the latest build are available in the Feedback Hub app and on the Windows blog.
When you allow a device to receive Insider preview builds, you also agree to send the maximum amount of telemetry data to Microsoft. That means every crash is automatically logged, as is your usage of various features and apps.
But that's not your only mechanism to share feedback with Microsoft. You can submit feature suggestions and problem reports, complete with screenshots and other supporting files, using the feedback section of the Feedback Hub app.
Before filing a report, it's worth searching for existing feedback from other Insiders to see if you can upvote an existing report instead of filing a duplicate. You can also filter the feedback to show only reports you've submitted or only reports submitted using the build you're currently running. Use the Filter options shown here to accomplish either of those goals.
When a new build arrives, there's a natural temptation among some Insiders to want to install it immediately. That often leads to frustration, especially if there's a bug that affects the upgrade process. In most cases, the easiest way to avoid stress is to go on about your business and let the update happen in the background.
If you're a member of the Insider program and want to add your experience, feel free to leave your comments here.