When will you get the next version of Windows 10? Here's how to take control

Microsoft's recent changes in Windows Update make it less likely that you'll be surprised by a feature update. To take full control, though, you'll need to study the release schedule and mark your calendar.

Here's how to take control of Windows 10 feature updates

The single biggest complaint I hear about Windows 10 involves the disruptive potential of feature updates. Unlike the monthly cumulative updates that arrive on the second Tuesday of each month and install fairly quickly, these feature updates are full upgrades, and they can take over a PC for an hour or more as they install.

In early 2019, Microsoft made major changes in the Windows Update process to reduce the likelihood that a feature update will catch you by surprise, and the company even made it possible to skip a feature update and switch to an annual upgrade schedule instead of being forced to follow Microsoft's every-six-months calendar. But the rules are still confusing, and if you want to take charge of the process, you'll need to understand how the release schedule works.

To help make the process more understandable, I've broken it down into five steps.

Step 1: Get the details about your Windows 10 installation

The easiest way to do this is to open Settings > System > About. Scroll to the section headed Windows Specifications, where you will find details about the current installation, including two that are crucial here: the edition (Home, Pro, Enterprise, Education) and the version number. This screenshot shows a system that's running Windows 10 Pro, version 1903.

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This block provides crucial information about your Windows 10 installation

Step 2: Look up the availability date and end-of-service date for that version

You'll find both of these dates in a table on Microsoft's Windows 10 release information page. Look for the entries alongside the Semi-Annual Channel servicing option. (Ignore entries for the Semi-Annual Channel [Targeted], which is no longer supported.)

For Windows 10 Home and Pro, the end-of-service date is 18 months after the availability date.

For Windows 10 Enterprise, the rules have changed slightly as of 2019. For the H1 release (1903), the end-of-service date is 18 months after availability; for the H2 release (1909), this date extends for a full 30 months after initial availability. Note that in April 2020, in response to pressures introduced by the coronavirus pandemic, Microsoft extended the end-of-support date for version 1809 until November 10, 2020.

See also: Windows 10 Enterprise customers will now get Linux-like support

The following table shows these dates for all currently available versions, as of May 2020.

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The end of service date is the most important one to know.

For the PC running Windows 10 version 1903, the relevant dates are 2019-05-21 (availability) and 2020-12-08 (end of service).

Step 3: Determine whether you are at or near the end-of-service date for your version

If the end-of-service date you looked up in the previous step is less than 90 days away, you're in the red zone. Microsoft may deliver a new feature update to your PC and schedule it for installation at any time.

For Windows 10 Pro and Home editions, versions 1803 and earlier are all past their end-of-service date. As I noted earlier, Microsoft extended the end-of-support date for Version 1809, which is now in November 2020.

If you are running any version before 1809, you need to upgrade to a newer version ASAP, as I explain in the next step. For version 1809 or 1903, the 90-day deadline has already arrived. Kicking the can down the road is not an option, as Microsoft's update servers will insist on scheduling an upgrade literally any day, and you won't have the option to postpone it.

For PCs running Windows 10 Enterprise or Education, versions 1803 and 1809 will approach their end-of-service dates in May of 2021, so you still have roughly six months to plan. But thanks to Microsoft's quirky support calendar, systems running version 1903 will reach the end-of-service date on December 8, 2020, the same as the system in our example here, running Windows 10 Pro.

Step 4: Choose your next feature update

Depending on which Windows 10 version you are currently running, you might have a choice of subsequent versions to choose as an upgrade. For example, if you are running a version that is past its end-of-service date, you might have as many as three different versions to choose for an upgrade.

In our PC running version 1903, we know that there will be a choice of three possible upgrades: version 1909, version 2004, or version 20H2.

Which one is the correct choice? That decision involves a balancing act between two factors. The longer the interval since a version was released, and the larger its installed base, the more likely that any issues have been identified and patched. But that maturity also comes with a counterbalancing factor: the end-of-service date for that version is also sooner.

Installing version 1909 is a dead end. Because its end-of-service date is a mere six months away, you'll need to upgrade again in three or four months.

Version 2004 is the more logical choice. Because it's been publicly available for nearly six months, most of its known issues have been addressed; and because its end-of-service date is in December 2021, you can put upgrade worries out of your mind for nearly a year.

But version 20H2 might be the best choice of all. It's a brand new release, which might inspire trepidation about possible bugs. But in fact, it's the same code as version 2004, with a small number of new features activated, making the risk of upgrade issues roughly equal to version 2004. 

On a PC running Windows 10 version 1909, either of the most recent feature updates is a safe choice. I recommend version installing 20H2 sometime between now and January 2021, which will give you nearly 18 months before you have to think about upgrades again.

If none of those options seems palatable, you have a third choice:

  • Upgrade to Windows 10 Enterprise and standardize on the H2 feature update. That particular combination supports a 30-month servicing lifecycle, which means you can adopt a significantly longer upgrade cycle, with the option to wait two full years before upgrading. The version 20H2 feature update, which is available now, has an end-of-service date in May 2023, which means you can safely defer your next feature update for more than two years.

Step 5: Adjust your Windows settings and mark your calendar

If you thought everything up to this stage was complicated, I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that as of 2019 you no longer have to worry about Windows Update automatically installing an unwanted feature update -- at least not as long as you've avoided bumping into the end-of-service date.

The bad news is that installing the right version at the right time can be tricky, especially if you want to delay that upgrade for more than six months as Microsoft works through the inevitable list of bugs for a new version.

Let's start with the simplest scenario: You want to install a feature update within six months of when it is publicly available, and your system has no blocking issues. Easy: Set a reminder in your calendar, and when that alert pops up, check Windows Update and install the feature update, which should be waiting under the Optional Updates heading.

As an alternative, you can go to the Download Windows 10 page and run the Update Assistant.

Alas, neither of these options are reliable if you're planning to wait more than six months before installing a feature update. You run the risk that Windows will offer the current feature update instead of the comfortingly mature one you were hoping to install instead.

To avoid that possibility, plan ahead. Use the Media Creation Tool (also available on the Download Windows 10 page) to save an ISO copy of the version you plan to install. Do this while it's still available, before the next version is released. Save that ISO file and use it to manually upgrade when you're ready.

If you don't have the foresight to do that before it's needed, you'll have to scramble to find that slightly outdated version when you need it. If you have a Visual Studio (formerly known as MSDN) subscription, you can download older versions there. But mere mortals don't have any such option, which is why it pays to be prepared.