Virtually every week we stress the importance of doing regular updates to your operating system, hardware firmware, and third-party software. One thing that might get a little confusing is what is meant by “regular,” and what kinds of updates are critical versus updates that are optional. Today, we’ll talk a little bit about Microsoft 365’s update channels, how they affect the frequency of your software upgrades.

Security Patches vs. Feature Updates

One of the most important things to keep in mind when talking about updates is that it usually refers to new features and functionality, not security fixes. When we’ve written about updating your software for security purposes, we usually mean the routine security updates that are offered by software and hardware companies to keep your systems up-to-date. Sometimes we also refer to End of Support upgrades, which means getting the latest version of software before it becomes a security hazard.

Feature updates, on the other hand, are improvements to the features of your software. Feature updates change the look, feel, and functionality of your existing software, like moving from Windows 10 to Windows 11. As Microsoft irons out some kinks in Windows, they release new versions regularly that fix actual bugs, change and add features, etc. When you get these features on your desktop depends on which update channel you subscribe to.

Security updates for Microsoft 365 are, on the other hand, typically released Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of the month. This is Microsoft’s usual day of the month for releasing any security updates for Office products and for Windows itself.

Microsoft 365 Update Channels

The channels that you can subscribe to are the Current Channel, the Monthly Enterprise Channel, and the Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel. The Current Channel is updated more frequently: once a month or more. It gives you the newest features and functionality on a continual basis. Microsoft recommends the Current Channel for everyone, and it keeps everyone in your organization up-to-date and using the most current functionality.

Typically, new software has its fair share of bugs to work out. When new functionality is given to a piece of software, it has unintended consequences for users because of how the software interacts with hardware and other software. Microsoft recommends the Current Channel because they’re confident that by the time they release an update, it will be fully functional and relatively bug free. Another way they ensure this is to release a Preview for IT professionals to learn the new features before they get pushed to everyone in your organization.

The monthly and semi-annual release cycles are intended for IT professionals to better manage when updates happen, often for testing and compliance purposes. The Monthly Channel rolls all of the features of the Current Channel updates into a specific, scheduled release each Patch Tuesday. This helps plan out updates for an organization, but is roughly around the same timing for updates. The Semi-Annual Channel is intended for devices that need extensive testing before implementing any changes to Office features due to compliance or regulatory issues..

Changing the Channel

On the administrator’s side, changing which channel your devices subscribe to for Microsoft 365 updates depends on how they manage your Microsoft 365 more generally. It can be changed by an administrator through 1) Active Directory policies, 2) using the Office Deployment Tool, 3) Microsoft 365 Apps Configuration Manager, 4) Microsoft Intune Administrative Templates, 5) using servicing profiles, or 6) using the Microsoft 365 admin center.

Changing the update channel here might require waiting up to 24 hours for the update process to complete, but once it does, it will be on the new policy. When the channel is changed, devices must be able to get the newest update from that channel to transition to it, so changing the update channel through any of these methods will cause an update to happen immediately.

-Written by Derek Jeppsen on Behalf of Sean Goss and Crown Computers Team