It’s unclear when or if existing Windows phone handsets will be upgraded to Windows 10 Mobile. But you don’t have to wait. Here’s how you can upgrade to Windows 10 Mobile right now, bypassing your wireless carrier.
As we prepare to head into 2016, I think it’s fair to say that there are basically two types of people using Windows phones. There are the average users, a distinct minority within a minority. And then there are the fans, those who choose Windows phone knowing that it will never be popular with the mainstream or served by the app collection or ecosystem enjoyed by iPhone and Android.
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This one is for the fans. And it goes like this.
It’s time to get serious, and if you’re sticking with Windows phone, you need to be all-in. And the only way to do that, to ensure that you’re always on the latest software and have the latest updates, is to join the Windows Insider program. This lets you opt-in to pre-release builds and updates for Windows 10 on both PCs/tablets and phones. And in doing so, you can escape the shackles that the wireless carriers have placed on your phone. They don’t want you to get software upgrades. They want you to buy a new phone.
There are of course downsides to being an Insider. Some builds aren’t ready for prime time and can disable key phone features. You will occasionally need to reset your phone and restore everything from scratch. But there are two mitigating factors that I think outweigh these concerns.
First, you can do this. If you’re using a Windows phone today, you’ve already shown yourself to be someone who can make personal decisions that go against the mainstream and, more important, can handle the technical difficulties that come from using this platform.
Second, we’re at a very interesting period in time right now because Microsoft has essentially completed Windows 10 Mobile but has yet to ship it out to wireless carriers for distribution to existing users. That means you can use the Insider program to upgrade your phone to the initial shipping version of Windows 10 Mobile and then opt-out of the program, ensuring only that publicly-released (and carrier-approved) updates appear going forward. You could treat this upgrade as a one-time thing, and not an ongoing beta test.
Whatever you choose, I recommend that any Windows phone fan at least consider upgrading to Windows 10 Mobile. And I recommend that you do this now, before your carrier gets around to delivering it. If they ever do.
First, make sure you’ll be able to reverse this decision if needed. You do that by installing the Windows Device Recovery Tool and determining if it supports your phone: This utility can restore your Windows phone handset to the most recent factory-delivered OS image, meaning that if the Windows 10 Mobile upgrade goes south for some reason, or if you simply don’t like it, you can go back to Windows Phone 8.1. (In doing so, you will have to wipe out the phone, so pay attention to the backup advice noted below as well.)
Currently, the tool can only restore Nokia/Microsoft Lumia, HTC, and LG handsets. So if you have a BLU device, or some other Windows phone, you’re out of luck.
But you should make sure you can go back to Windows Phone 8.1. To do so, run the Windows Device Recovery Tool on your PC and plug-in your phone via USB. If your phone appears in the tool like this, you’re good to go: You can recover it back to its most recent factory image (probably Windows Phone 8.1).
If it does not appear—you’ll just see a “My device was not detected” button—then your options become simple: You can continue with Windows Phone 8.1 or buy a new phone.
Next, make sure you phone is backed up. In Windows Phone 8.1 this is found in Settings, System, Backup.
This backup will help you restore your phone, not just to the old OS version, but also some of your data. That said, you should also take a run around your phone’s internal (and, if present, SD) storage and manually copy any data—photos, especially—you find to your PC. It pays to be a bit OCD here.
Next—and I know this sounds like a cruel joke, but you need to do it—check and make sure there aren’t any pending updates before you upgrade. In Windows Phone 8.1, you do so in Settings, System, Phone Update.
Using your Windows phone, open the Windows Phone Store and search for and install the Windows Insider app.
Run the app and tap “Get preview builds” in the opening screen.
In this screen, you have a choice to make. If you wish to upgrade to the initial shipping version of Windows 10 Mobile and then will opt-out of future pre-release updates, it doesn’t matter which one you choose. But if you are going to stick with pre-release updates, Insider Fast will deliver frequent cutting-release updates of future Windows 10 Mobile builds going forward, whereas Insider Slow is a bit more measured (and less risky).
Either way, tap the Select (arrow) button when you’ve made your choice and then confirm your decision to join the Insider program (if you hadn’t already) and reboot as directed.
When the phone has rebooted, check for updates: You do this in Settings, System, Phone Update. This time, you should see an update. (At the time of this writing, it’s listed as Windows 10 Mobile build 10586.29—or what we call Windows 10 Mobile 1511, the initial shipping version of the OS—but that can/will change over time.)
Choose Install when prompted.
Then, sit back and relax while the phone performs the familiar “spinning gears” install routine. The amount of time required varies by device, but assume it will be close to an hour, especially for slower handsets with lots of installed apps and data.
Eventually, the phone will reboot. And after some initial “WE’RE GETTING THERE…” screens—where your apps and data are copied back into the new OS version—you’ll be presented with the new Windows 10 Mobile Start screen.
Now, visit Phone Update again. (In Windows 10 Mobile, it’s in Settings, Update & Security). Check for updates again. This time, you’ll get a new cumulative update, which bumps up the build number to 10586.36. (This is the most recent public release at the time of this writing.) You will go through the same update experience as with 10586.29.
After that is done, you have a decision to make. You can remove your phone from the Windows Insider program, and hope/wait for future updates from your carrier. Or, you can remain in the program, dealing with the possibility that future pre-release builds will be buggy.
To remove this device from the Windows Insider program, you actually have to un-enroll from the program. Fortunately, this is not a big deal, as you can re-enroll at any time. To do so, run the Windows Insider app and tap the More (“…”) menu item that’s barely visible in the lower-right corner of the app. Then, select “Leave program” from the menu that appears.
A few notes on Windows 10 Mobile for you upgraders.
In my experience, an upgrade can often result in laggy performance and you may even notice that some features don’t work properly. If this is the case, you might consider resetting the device—basically, a clean install of the OS, which wipes out all your data and apps—and trying again. You do this in Settings, System, About. Just scroll down and tap “Reset your phone.”
If you decide you don’t like Windows 10 Mobile, or simply want to try again later, remember that you can always reset your handset to Windows Phone 8.1 using the Windows Device Recovery Tool. This is straightforward.