Software makers have become more and more open to the idea of public betas: trial runs of new apps and operating systems that anyone who wants to can get involved with. They get their code tested for free, and we get to try out new features ahead of time.
Getting started with these betas is easier than you might think, and they're available on just about every platform out there, as we'll explain below. It won't cost you anything, and you can quit a beta whenever you like.
Bear in mind, though, that betas are unfinished software—you take this step at your own risk. We don't recommend running beta code on devices that are critically important to you, as bugs, crashes, and incompatibilities can crop up.
It's unlikely (but not impossible) that a beta will completely break your phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop—most betas are reasonably stable and close to being finished. But an app you rely on daily might stop working, or some of your data might disappear.
iOS and iPadOS Betas
If you'd like to run beta software on your iPhone, then you need to head to the Apple Beta Software Program page on the web. Follow the Sign up link, enter your Apple ID credentials, and then open the iOS tab—you'll see the current beta version of iOS that's being tested at the moment.
Follow the Enroll your iOS device link, then take note of the guidelines on the subsequent page for backing up your device. With that done, you need to open the Apple Beta page on your actual iPhone, sign in, and then download the profile file that's presented to you.
Restart your phone, then open up the Settings app and click General then Software Update, where details of the latest beta update should appear. Choose to download and install the update, and once your phone restarts again, it'll be running the beta version rather than the standard version of iOS.
It's exactly the same if you're on an iPad, except you are of course following the iPadOS and Enroll your iPad links where applicable, instead of the ones related to iOS and iPhones. On both iPhones and iPads, you'll continue to get beta software updates until you quit the beta software program, which is done by going to General and Profiles from Settings, tapping the beta profile, and choosing Remove.
Unlike iOS and iPadOS, the Android public beta program doesn't run all year round—instead, it starts around May or June ahead of a full release of the new Android version later in the year. Keep up to speed with the tech news of the day and you shouldn't miss the next beta program when it launches.
When Google gives the go-ahead, open up the Android Beta Program website in your browser and sign in using your Google account—you'll see a list of devices linked to your account that are compatible with the beta. Pixel phones are usually always eligible, sometimes together with a small selection of handsets from other manufacturers.
Select the device you want to enroll, and once you've confirmed your choice, Google will push out the beta update to it: If you open Settings on your phone and then choose System, Advanced, and System Update, it should appear. You'll continue getting beta updates until you quit the program, or until the beta program ends.
The best option is just to wait until the end of the beta program, when your device will be upgraded to the finished software. You can leave early—by going back to the Android Beta Program and opting out again—but you'll need to wipe and reset your phone and start again on it from scratch.
To get hold of the latest macOS beta and install it on your Mac, head to the Apple Beta Software Program website and click Sign up. Enter your Apple ID credentials, then open up the macOS tab, and you'll see some information about the version of macOS that's currently being tested at the beta stage.
Follow the Enroll your Mac link on that page, take note of the guidelines about betas and backups of your data, and then click the Download the macOS Public Beta Access Utility button on the same page. This little program takes care of switching your Mac to the latest beta software for you.
The standard Software Update dialog pops up, the same one from the System Preferences screen, and you should see that an update to the beta version of macOS is available: Click Update Now to download it and get it installed.
New beta updates will continue to appear here and continue to be installed on your laptop or desktop until you decide that you want to leave the beta program. To do this, you need to click the Details link on the left of the Software Update dialog.
To access beta versions of Windows you need to join the Windows Insider program—follow that website link and you can click Register to sign up using your Microsoft account details. There's also plenty of information on the site about what being a Windows Insider means and how the program works.
Once you've registered, you open up the Windows Settings pane, then pick Update & Security and open the Windows Insider Program link on the left. Click Get Started, pick the Microsoft account that you've just registered with the program, and then follow the instructions on the screen. You'll need to restart to apply the changes.
There are actually three different channels you can pick from: Going from the most technically and buggy to the closest-to-finished version of Windows, are the Dev channel, the Beta channel, and the Release Preview channel. Microsoft has a useful guide online if you need some help deciding which channel might be best for you.
To go back to the non-beta version of Windows, from Windows Settings choose Update & Security, then Windows Insider Program, then Stop Insider Preview Builds—the next time a finished, public version of Windows gets pushed out, you'll get it on your PC. If and when you want to leave the Windows Insider program completely, you need to head to this page online, sign in with your Microsoft account credentials, and then click “leave the program.”
Chrome OS Betas
For those of you on Chromebooks, you can choose between three channels for the Chrome OS operating system you're running: There's the standard Stable channel, the more experimental and buggy Beta channel, and the even more experimental and buggy Dev channel (which gets updated once or twice a week).
The Beta channel is the best option for most people looking to test Chrome OS features out in advance—Google says it gets new features around a month before they're pushed out to the Stable channel, and updates arrive about once a week on average. Have a look at Google's guide for more information on the channels.
To change the channel your Chromebook is using, click on the status and notification area in the lower right-hand corner, then click the cog icon to open up the Settings pane: If you open up the menu (click the three horizontal lines, top left), then About Chrome OS, then Additional details, you'll find the channel switcher.
You can quickly go from a more stable to a more experimental channel, but going in the other direction needs a full wipe of your Chromebook (and you'll need to sign in to your Google account again). With almost everything in Chrome OS living on the web that's not a huge problem, but it's worth bearing in mind if you are thinking about switching between the channels.
Individual App Betas
As well as getting beta editions of the operating system you're working with, it's also possible to beta-test individual apps. On iOS and iPadOS, this is handled through an app called TestFlight—betas are usually small-scale and often invite-only, but directories such as Beta Family can alert you to betas that are currently ongoing. If you're interested, it's worth checking with the developers of your favorite apps.
Betas on Android are typically more open and accessible, though not all of them are fully public and available to everyone. The easiest way to find some is to simply search for "beta" on the Google Play Store, though you can also run a general web search for beta versions of the apps you're interested in. Here's the page for the Instagram beta on Android, for instance.
When it comes to desktop programs for Windows and macOS, you'll find that some applications offer the opportunity to download and test beta versions, though there's no central place to manage this—you need to check with the developers on an individual basis. If there's a program you spend a lot of time using, it might be worth seeing if a beta program is available.
Web browsers often have beta versions on offer, for example. Google Chrome offers Beta, Developer, and Canary editions of the software, so you can decide how much you want to balance bugs with cutting-edge features currently in testing. In the case of the Canary build, you can run it alongside another version of the browser.