In your travels across the web you might have come across the term beta software, which these days is used to mean software that's not quite ready for the masses - there are still some bugs and kinks to be worked out, before the final release gets pushed to the public.
In a lot of cases - with your OS, with the apps on your phone, and with the programs on your computer - developers make these beta editions available for anyone who wants to try them. If you like living on the cutting edge with your software, it's worth investigating.
What is beta software?
As we've already said, beta software is software that's not quite finished. Different people use the term in different ways, but in general it refers to software that still has bugs in it, and hasn't been made fully compatible with other apps and devices yet.
The best way of dealing with these bugs is to get a lot of people to test the code, which is why so many software developers now made betas available for anyone to download - it's a lot easier to get hold of official beta editions of programs now than it used to be.
It's a trade-off - you can try out the latest software faster, but you are running the risk of hitting a system crash or two, or maybe even needing a complete device reset. Major problems are pretty rare though, even with beta editions of programs and operating systems - you're more likely to notice issues with strange software behaviour, error messages that don't make a lot of sense, and so on.
On the plus side you can try out new features - like the augmented reality tricks in iOS 11 - before everyone else gets their hands on them. You do so at your own risk though, and you're on your own if you start to come across problems.
As well as the operating systems we've mentioned below, a lot of programs and apps have beta schemes you can join up for. For example, the Chrome browser has several versions available, and beta editions of a number of Android apps can be found too, including major names like Facebook and Snapchat.
Windows beta software
Windows releases beta versions of its software under the Windows Insider name - visit the Windows Insider website and you can start downloading beta versions of Windows once you've entered your Microsoft account details. The updates will show up in the usual place and you'll get some new feedback tools to report bugs and any issues you come across directly to Microsoft. You can opt out at any time, though a PC reset may be required.
macOS beta software
Apple runs its own beta scheme, just like Microsoft, which covers macOS and iOS - all the updates are free, and as with normal updates for Apple's desktop operating system, you can find new downloads in the App Store. Head to the Apple Beta Program website, then click Sign up, enter your Apple ID, and choose your laptop or desktop - to go back to the regular versions of macOS, you'll need to restore your computer from a previous backup.
Android beta software
Google's Android beta programme isn't quite as comprehensive as some of the others here, and of course a lot of Android devices don't use Google's stock version of the mobile OS. To get started, go to the Android Beta Programme website and register your device - you'll need a recent Nexus or Pixel handset. As we mentioned with Windows and macOS, you can opt out at any time, but you'll have to completely reset your smartphone first.
iOS beta software
The process for getting in on the iOS betas is very similar to the one for macOS - you point your browser towards the Apple Beta Program website, you sign in using your Apple ID, and then you register the iOS devices you want to test the public beta software on. Beta updates appear and can be installed just like normal ones, and if you want to go back to the standard version of iOS, then you need to restore your device using a saved backup.
Chrome OS beta software
Chrome OS actually has three channels: stable, beta and developer, with the last one being even more buggy than the beta and getting new features even earlier. From your Chromebook, you need to go into Settings, choose the About Chrome OS and then the Detailed build information links, and you can change channel - note that your device will be completely wiped each time, but on a Chromebook that's not so much of an issue.