If you’re a long-time Windows user, you’re probably familiar with service packs, but Microsoft seems done with them. Windows 10’s first big update — the “November update” — is a “build” rather than a service pack. Windows 10’s future big updates will be builds, too.
Microsoft actually gave up on service packs years ago. The last service pack released for a consumer version of Windows was Windows 7 Service Pack 1 back in 2011. Windows 8 never received service packs — instead, Microsoft released Windows 8.1, and then “Windows 8.1 with Update”. (Who comes up with these names?)
How Service Packs Worked
Previously, Windows “service packs” were basically big Windows patches delivered via Windows Update, or downloadable separately. You installed these in the same way you installed typical patches from Windows Update.
Service Packs performed two roles. One, they bundled together all the security and stability patches that had been released for Windows previously, giving you a single big update you could install rather than installing hundreds of individual Windows updates. They also sometimes contained new features or tweaks. For example, Windows XP Service Pack 2 dramatically improved Windows XP’s security and added a “Security Center.”
Microsoft tended to release new service packs regularly. For example, it released three service packs for Windows XP, two for Windows Vista, and one for Windows 7. But then the service packs stopped, and none were released for Windows 8 or 8.1.
Windows Updates Still Work Like They Used To
Typical Windows updates still work like they previously did. When Windows Update automatically downloads and installs updates on your system, it’s generally downloading small patches. You can view a list of these patches and even uninstall individual ones from the Control Panel.
The average, day-to-day updates work similarly. But, rather than regularly releasing new service packs, Microsoft is releasing new “builds” of Windows 10.
Builds Are Like Entirely New Versions of Windows
Conceptually, it’s easiest to think of these “builds” as entirely new versions of Windows. Going from Windows 10’s initial release to the “November Update” version of Windows 10 is similar to going from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1.
When a build is released, Windows 10 automatically downloads and installs it. Windows will then reboot and “upgrade” your existing version of Windows to the new build.
Rather than saying you now have a “service Pack” installed, Microsoft changes the build number of the operating system. So, to see which build of Windows 10 you have installed, you can press the Windows key, type “winver” into the Start menu or Start screen, and press Enter.
The initial version of Windows 10 was “Build 10240”. The November update marks the introduction of a new version number scheme — it’s “Version 1511” because it was released in the 11th month of 2015. The November Update is also “Build 10586”.
You can’t “uninstall” a build from the Control Panel like you could a service pack, or like you can a more typical Windows Update. Instead, after Windows upgrades itself to a new build, you can go to the Settings > Update & security > Recovery screen and have Windows “go back” to a previous build. This option is only available for 30 days, after which Windows 10 will remove the old files and you won’t be able to downgrade.
This is the exact same process for uninstalling Windows 10 and reverting to Windows 7 or 8.1. In fact, going through the Disk Cleanup wizard after upgrading to a new build and you’ll see gigabytes of files are used by “Previous Windows installation(s)”. These are the files that allow you to downgrade, and are deleted after 30 days. It works exactly like upgrading to a new version of Windows because that’s what it is. After that, you can’t uninstall the build without completely reinstalling the original version of Windows 10.
This also ensures system restore works properly. When you “reset” your PC to its factory default state using Windows 10’s integrated reset feature, it’ll give you a fresh version of your current build of Windows 10 rather than downgrading you to the original version of Windows 10 your computer came with.
Microsoft doesn’t actually provide a downloadable file that allows you to install the new build on multiple PCs. However, Microsoft is providing downloads of the Windows 10 installation media with the new builds — currently, the November update — preinstalled. Previously, it was a bit more work for the average Windows user to manually “slipstream” a service pack into Windows installation media.
While only one new “build” of Windows 10 has been released to everyone, Microsoft regularly distributes new builds to “Windows insiders” so they can test the new software. Microsoft is attempting to keep every Windows 10 installation up-to-date, and they’re doing it with this new update system. While Windows 10 will be getting many more big updates, they’ll be in the form of builds, not classic service packs.