On Thursday, fall will come early for hundreds of thousands of Mac users when Apple releases its first public beta of OS X Yosemite. The public-beta program, announced during Apple's annual developer conference in June, lets regular users download and test pre-release versions of OS X. Apple says the first million users to sign up at the OS X Beta Program website will be able to test Yosemite before the OS is released to the general public in the fall.

Users who signed up will receive a redemption code to enter in the Mac App Store, at which point a Yosemite installer app will download to their Macs. Once Yosemite is installed, future updates to the beta software will come automatically via the system's standard Software Update functionality.

The first public build of Yosemite is the same one received by registered Mac developers earlier this week. Developers who are testing Yosemite are on a different track than regular users, however, and both groups may receive different updates at different times as testing continues.

Apple developers know to use the company's Radar bug tracker to file bugs, but regular users won't need to. Instead, Apple will ask users to send feedback and communicate bugs via the Feedback Assistant app, which will be installed along with Yosemite on all beta-test systems.

When Yosemite is finished, users will be upgraded to the final version automatically, also via the Software Update feature within the App Store app.

Just as a reminder, OS X Yosemite is still software that is under development, so apps and services may not work as expected some (or all) of the time. It's always wise to back up your Mac before installing, and you should seriously consider installing Yosemite on a Mac that you don't use for day-to-day operations just in case something goes wrong.

Still on track to be released this fall, OS X Yosemite features some major design changes including a new system font, upgrades to Safari, Mail, Messages, and Notification Center, and the new iCloud Drive service. Unfortunately, one of the most anticipated features of Yosemite, Handoff, also requires iOS 8--and Apple's not doing any public beta-testing of that.

If you're interesting in learning more about OS X Yosemite, check out our OS X Yosemite FAQ as well as our Hands-On With Yosemite series:

We'll be updating all of our OS X Yosemite coverage all the way through the final release this fall.