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A beta release is a new version of a software program that has not yet been fully tested for bugs. Once it is tested to the satisfaction of the writer, owner or organization, it is released as the newest stable version of the software. At this point the software will go from being, for example, “version 4.0b” (for beta), to “version 4.0.” It might also operate under a code name while in beta.
A beta release can be open or closed. An open release is normally available to the general public to download and test. A closed beta is available only to a specific group of beta testers.
Many computer enthusiasts enjoy being beta testers and often subscribe to beta mailing lists with software companies. The benefit for the software company is that the release can be tested by scores of real-world users, each using unique computer systems with a variety of hardware and software. If there are conflicts with other programs or hardware, beta testing should reveal most of them.
Since a beta release has not been fully tested for bugs, it comes with a warning that anyone who downloads and uses it is doing so at his or her own risk. When testing the newest release of a program that already exists on the computer, some testers opt to load the beta release into its own folder. That way, if it causes problems and needs to be uninstalled, it won’t harm the preexisting program.
The disadvantage to testing a beta release this way is that the user’s personal configuration or files from the full release are not carried over into the install. If the release has a rollback option built into the install process, this should suffice, though backing up important files is always recommended.
This release falls somewhere along the home stretch of the software development cycle. First comes the pre-alpha stage, involving actual feature development and overall coding. Once the software is compiled and ready for in-house testing it’s in the alpha stage. Only after in-house testing is complete, does the software move into the beta release stage; eventually reaching the third and final stage of becoming a stable release.
Regardless of what you're releasing, in my opinion, one of the benefits of a beta release is that it gives the public time to test out your product while you're still working on the final version. Video games are a perfect example of this.
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