How to get Windows 7 on the cheap

Microsoft's new OS can be had for free -- or at least for less than the asking price -- but there are catches

The launch of Windows 7 may be more than two months away, but the buzz, already building, is starting to reach fever pitch.

Reviews, such as Preston Gralla's in Computerworld, have called it "solid" and "well-performing" -- a far cry from the "glitches that bedeviled the launch of Windows Vista."

[ Get InfoWorld's 21-page hands-on look at the next version of Windows, plus deployment tips on security, Windows Server 2008 integration, and Windows XP migration, all from InfoWorld’s editors and contributors. ]

Success for Windows 7 can't come too soon for Microsoft, which saw its desktop operating system revenues plunge 29 percent year-over-year last quarter. Microsoft's chief financial officer, Chris Liddell, in fact, pinned hopes on Windows 7 for a better second half of the year during a conference call with Wall Street analysts in July.

But with unemployment remaining high and the economy still on shaky ground, Microsoft's financial success is probably of no concern to you. What you want to know is how to get Windows 7 for the least amount of money.

That's why we're here: to help you get, if not a free copy of the new operating system, then at least one that costs less than the asking price.

OK, so is there any way I can get Windows 7 for free? Legally? Sure, but you have to hurry.

You have until Thursday to download the free Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC), the unpolished (and unfinished) preview that Microsoft unveiled back in May. (Side note: Microsoft originally pegged Aug. 15 as the done date for RC downloads, but last month quietly extended the deadline five days, to Aug. 20.)

Windows 7 RC is available in both 32- and 64-bit versions, and in English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish editions. Microsoft's also giving out free activation keys for the RC.

What's the catch? Microsoft's not in the business of giving away its crown jewels, so there is some fine print. First of all, the RC isn't the same as the RTM (release to manufacturing) build that Microsoft sent to computer makers two weeks ago. But it's reliable and remarkably stable.

Second, Windows 7 RC will run fine until March 1, 2010, but then it will begin automatically shutting down at two-hour intervals. It won't warn you of an impending shutdown, either, so unless you're ready to lose work in progress -- and put up with restarting several times each workday -- that will be the time to give it up.

The RC expires on June 1, 2010. From that date on, it simply won't boot.

I want the real deal. Is there a way to grab the final version for free? Yes, but not everybody qualifies.

The thousands who were invited to the first round of beta tests last year -- dubbed "Technical Beta Program" -- are eligible for a free copy of Windows 7 Ultimate as a reward for their work.

Microsoft made that announcement in late June, reversing an earlier decision not to give away copies to that group of invite-only testers. Technical Beta Program testers can find more information, and instructions on how to claim their freebie, on the Microsoft Connect site, the company's clearinghouse for all its preview programs.

In other words, just because you downloaded the beta or RC doesn't make you eligible for the freebie.

I wasn't one of the lucky beta testers. Anything for me? You still have a chance to score a free copy of the new OS.

Microsoft is running a series of launch events for IT professionals and developers in 25 cities starting Sept. 24 (Denver, Miami, and Minneapolis) and ending Nov. 9 (Baltimore, Houston, and St. Louis). Check out this site for the complete list and schedule.

The launch events are free, and all attendees get a free copy of Windows 7.

The event registration form asks whether you're an IT professional, developer, IT manager/or technical decision maker, non-technical executive, or non-technical manager or staff, but there doesn't seem to be any check that the information you plug in is accurate. We signed up for the Oct. 14 event in Portland, Ore., without difficulties, for example, and quickly received a confirmation e-mail.

Although many IT professionals and developers have had access to Windows 7 for more than a week through the for-a-fee TechNet and MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network) services, if your firm doesn't subscribe to either, this is your chance to get a free copy of the OS.

I don't care to sit through a day of Microsoft presentations for a free copy. How can I buy Windows 7 outright, but shave a few bucks off the price? You've already missed Microsoft's best deal, the $50 pre-order sale that the company ran from June 26 to July 11 in the United States and Canada (and other dates in France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom).

Another route, however, remains open.

You can buy a retail copy of Windows Vista now, then use the free Windows 7 upgrade, part of Microsoft's Upgrade Option Program, that comes with it. (Windows 7 Upgrade Option Program is better known for providing free or nearly-free upgrades to Windows 7 for people who purchase a new Vista PC, but it also applies to retail boxed copies of Vista purchased between June 26, 2009, and Jan. 31, 2010.)

The key is to pay less for a copy of Windows Vista than the $119.99 price Microsoft and some retailers are now charging for Windows 7. Because the "free" upgrade to Windows 7 costs $9.99 for "shipping and handling," you need to pay $110 or less for Vista for this work. Fortunately, that's not tough.

We found a copy of Vista Home Premium Upgrade on OfficeMax's site for $99.99 (a $10 savings over the price of Windows 7 once the $9.99 shipping and handling charge is added in). Royal Discount, meanwhile, has the same SKU priced at $79.45 (a $30.55 savings).

Microsoft has restrictions on the deal. You have to buy a retail boxed copy of Windows Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, or Vista Ultimate before Jan. 31, 2010; the cheaper OEM and academic editions don't qualify; and you have to submit the product key and mail the dated sales receipt to Microsoft. According to details of the deal, you'll get your free Windows 7 upgrade -- Windows 7 Home Premium if you bought Vista Home Premium, for example -- six to eight weeks after the Oct. 22 debut of Windows 7.

More information about the offer, and the upgrade order page, is available online; terms and conditions are spelled out.

I'm running Windows XP, and that plan sounds mickey mouse. I have to upgrade to Vista, then to Windows 7 a few months later? Not unless you want to.

You can just set the new copy of Vista aside, wait for the Windows 7 upgrade to reach you, then use that. The catch? You'll have to do a "clean install," which means you must back up data and settings, install Windows 7, then restore the data and re-install all applications.

Most experts recommend a clean install in any case, since it forces you to get rid of apps on your hard drive you no longer use and start from a fresh slate.

But with the Vista upgrade, you do have the option of a pair of "in-place" upgrades to move from XP to Windows 7, via an intermediate stop at Vista. That's because Vista allows an in-place upgrade from XP (something Windows 7 doesn't support), and Windows 7 offers the same for Vista users.

I'm lazy and impatient. Any way to save on Windows 7 without going through all the rigmarole? Maybe.

You can keep money in your pocket for now and hope that, as some have speculated, Microsoft launches another discounted pre-order sale before Windows 7's Oct. 22 debut.

Or you can wait until after Oct 22.

Although none of the retailers have discounted pre-orders of Windows 7 -- they're all charging $119.99 for Home Premium -- that's not likely to last past the launch date. Online sellers like Amazon and Newegg, for instance, always knock a few dollars off the list price. Look for those dollar shavings to start once Windows 7 is in the marketplace.

And if sales don't meet Microsoft's expectations, deeper discounts are possible. After all, the company's facing intense pressure to boost Windows revenues, what with a two-quarter run of year-over-year declines.

This story, "How to get Windows 7 on the cheap" was originally published by Computerworld.

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