Home / Windows 10

How the Windows Insider Program Works

Microsoft introduced the Windows Insider Program in 2014 when it announced Windows 10, delivering the first preview release days later. The program has continued nonstop since then, expanding in 2017 to include business users as well as personal accounts.

You don't need to pay a fee or pass a test to join the Windows Insider Program. All you have to do is complete two steps. First, go to https://insider.windows.com, read the terms and conditions, and sign up using a Microsoft account or an Azure Active Directory address. After completing that prerequisite, you can take the second step by configuring any device running Windows 10 to install Insider Preview builds.

What's different about the Windows Insider Program for Business?
To join a device to the Windows Insider Program for Business, use an Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) account to register; the Azure AD account option is available only if the device is connected to your corporate network using that account. When you install a preview build on an Azure AD-joined device using that Azure AD account, an additional My Company page appears in the Feedback Hub, where you can see and upvote feedback submitted by other members of your organization.

If you are a Global Administrator of an Azure AD enterprise domain, you can also register that domain with the Windows Insider Program. Doing so allows you to manage Insider builds on corporate devices by applying policies. It also ensures that feedback from your users is not shared with outsiders.

For details on how to participate in the Windows Insider Program for Business, see https://insider.windows.com/for-business.

Unless you're an experienced software tester, you should approach these preview builds with caution. By definition, they are unfinished, with known and unknown issues that can potentially expose you to system crashes and data loss. The best test platforms are secondary PCs that are properly backed up; for testing software compatibility and previewing new Windows features, a virtual machine is an excellent choice, although it isn't as useful at providing compatibility information for Microsoft engineers.

Another significant issue associated with setting up access to Insider Preview builds is the need to install feature updates far more frequently than the normal twice-yearly schedule. The most aggressive Insider option involves installing a new feature update weekly during normal development cycles, and the pace of updates sometimes increases to multiple builds per week as developers reach the end of the cycle and prepare for the public release.

Joining a device to the Windows Insider Program is not a decision to be made lightly. If you decide you want to stop receiving preview builds and go back to the current release channel, you can safely do so during the brief interval after a new Windows version is released to the Semi-Annual Channel. At that time, you can safely disconnect a device from receiving Insider builds without having to reinstall Windows. At all other times, however, you'll almost certainly have to back up your data and perform a clean reinstall of Windows.

If you're cognizant of the risks and willing to accept the trade-offs, keep reading to learn how to set up a Windows 10 PC to receive Insider builds.

Stop unauthorized users from switching to Insider builds
If you manage PCs in an office or home, you probably don't want to have preview builds installed on them without your permission. To prevent users from creating headaches for you and your support staff, take the following steps:
  • On any PC running Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, or Education, you can apply a Group Policy setting to block changes to Insider settings on that PC. Go to Computer Configuration → Administrative Templates → Windows Components → Windows Update → Windows Update for Business → Manage Preview Builds; after enabling that policy, set the lone option to Disable Preview Builds.
  • On devices running Windows 10 Home (which doesn't support Group Policy settings), your best option is to configure standard user accounts, which require permission from an administrator (you) to access Windows Insider Program settings.

Joining the Windows Insider Program

After registering at https://insider.windows.com, you're ready to configure a Windows 10 device to receive Insider Preview builds. Go to Settings → Update & Security → Windows Insider Program and click Get Started.

The first step is to link your PC to the registered Insider account. In most cases, the Microsoft account you use to sign in to Windows 10 is the best choice here. Then walk through the wizard's steps to configure your Insider settings.

After that step is complete, you need to choose one of three Insider Preview channels. Over time, these channels have evolved, with Fast and Slow rings as well as an occasional (but limited) option for Insiders in the Fast ring to "skip ahead" a full version. As of mid-2020, those options are replaced by three channels whose names and general contours match those used for other Microsoft software and services, including Microsoft Edge, Microsoft 365, and Microsoft Teams test releases.

  • Dev Channel
    Preview builds go to this group of Insiders first. The benefit of being first to see a new feature is balanced by the risk of being the first to experience a new bug. You can report those bugs using the Feedback Hub. Microsoft recommends this channel for "highly technical users."

  • Beta Channel
    Devices configured for this "early adopter" channel receive preview builds after they've had a chance to be thoroughly tested by the Dev channel. These builds are aligned to a specific upcoming release and are likely to be more stable and reliable because they incorporate fixes based on feedback from testers in the Dev channel.

  • Release Preview Channel
    This is the most conservative channel of all, offering new builds near the end of the development cycle for a feature update. Insiders who choose this channel also receive advanced quality updates and have early access to certain key features. These builds are fully supported. Microsoft recommends this channel for IT pros who want to preview and validate upcoming releases without a major risk of instability.

Before you can complete the configuration process, you must click through two bold and very stern warnings, which list the risks we discussed earlier. After a restart, you're ready to begin receiving new builds. The current Insider Preview release that matches your preferences will download and install automatically, just like any feature update.

After configuring a device to receive Insider Preview builds, you should see some new options in the Windows Insider Program section in Settings → Update & Security. There, you can change your Insider settings by changing the channel, which indirectly changes the pace at which you receive new builds. To use a different account with a specific device, register that account with the Windows Insider Program. Then click the account card at the bottom of that Settings page and use the Change or Unlink buttons.

Insider Preview builds arrive via Windows Update, as normal. After installing an Insider Preview build, you can see a few changes. For starters, a watermark appears in the lower-right corner of the screen, above the clock in the notification area, with the words "Evaluation copy" and the Insider Preview build number. (This watermark disappears for some builds that are released near the end of a development cycle, as Microsoft prepares the final preview builds for the official release.)

In addition, on a PC configured to receive Insider Preview builds, some privacy settings can't be adjusted. If you go to Settings → Privacy → Diagnostics & Feedback, for example, you'll find that the Feedback Frequency options are set to the default levels, and a message on that page discloses that the Windows Insider Program has taken control of those options.

Those options return to normal when you change the configuration of a device so that it no longer receives Insider Preview builds and is back on the Semi-Annual Channel.

Making sense of Windows code names
Each new Windows 10 feature update has its own code name, which you can use to track that version as it works its way through the development process, a process called "flighting." The initial release of Windows 10, in July 2015, was code-named Threshold, and the second release, version 1511, was identified as Threshold 2. The Anniversary Update, version 1607, was code-named Redstone, and subsequent feature updates were code-named Redstone 2, Redstone 3, Redstone 4, and Redstone 5. For a brief period in 2019, Insider builds used the code name Vibranium.

Those code names are mostly useful to those who have enrolled in the Windows Insider Program and are actively testing upcoming versions. The first public preview release from the Redstone 5 flight arrived for those in the Skip Ahead group well before version 1803 (the formal name of what had previously been Redstone 4) became publicly available. The designation "rs" in the file name for a download of a preview build is a giveaway to informed observers that the new build belongs to the Redstone development cycle.
Microsoft was actively testing the version of Windows scheduled for release in the second half of 2020. Instead of a code name, this release is identified as 20H2 in its Insider flight details. To identify the current status of Insider Preview releases for Windows 10 PC, Server, and IoT, go to the Flight Hub at https://docs.microsoft.com/windows-insider/flight-hub/.

When running an Insider Preview build, you can suspend delivery of new builds for up to seven days. Go to Settings → Update & Security → Windows Update, click Advanced Options, and then click Pause Updates For 7 Days. You might choose to make this change if you're in the midst of a big project and don't want your work to be interrupted by a large download that could take an hour or more to install. You might also choose to stop updates temporarily if you're traveling. As a member of the Windows Insider Program, however, that delay is limited to a week. (For a device in the public Semi-Annual Channel, you can use the same option to pause updates for up to 35 days.)

As long as your PC is enrolled in the Windows Insider Program, you will continue to receive new builds. When the development cycle for one release ends, the next one begins without interruption. To configure your PC so that you stop receiving Insider builds when the next public release of Windows 10 is installed, go back to Settings → Update & Security → Windows Insider Program and turn on the Stop Getting Preview Builds switch at the bottom of the page.

Of course, setting that option has no effect on your current installation. As we noted earlier, the only way to leave the Windows Insider Program in the middle of a development cycle is to install a clean copy of a released version of Windows 10.