Except for a short form, however, Microsoft makes no effort to qualify eligible users, giving anyone the opportunity to try out the new operating system before it ships on Oct. 22.
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According to Stephen Rose, a senior community manager for Windows, the free trial will be available until March 31, 2010, or until an unspecified number of copies have been downloaded, whichever comes first. "A limited number of licenses are available, so the download will only be available while supplies last," said Rose in a Tuesday entry on a company blog.
There are other not-so-subtle limitations. The Windows 7 trial must be activated within 10 days after it's installed -- not the usual 30 days -- but no separate product key is necessary, as it's built into the software. At the 90-day mark, the trial automatically, and without warning, shuts down the PC every hour of operation.
The trial is a fully-functional Enterprise edition -- which is normally sold only to volume license customers, and is analogous to the Ultimate retail version -- and is available in both 32- and 64-bit versions, although only in English, French, German, Japanese and Spanish.
Rose warned users that at the end of the 90-day trial, they would have to purchase Windows 7 and perform a "clean" install, or one that wipes the drive and requires a reinstallation of all applications.
A Microsoft IT evangelist disagreed. "Though this is the official word, I personally was able to install the evaluation and then change the product key," said Kevin Remde on his own blog today. "Entering a [Volume License Multiple Access Key] allowed me to activate it to just fine. So while it does require a proper license and key to continue to use it, it doesn't necessarily require a fresh install."
The trial is the first opportunity for most users to get their hands on the release-to-manufacturing , or RTM, build of Windows 7. Previously, only TechNet or MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) subscribers, or corporate customers with Software Assurance plans, have been able to download the final version of the OS.
And it's the first time that Microsoft has offered a try-before-you-buy deal for Windows 7. The closest the company's come to free before was a steep, limited-time discount on pre-orders for the new operating system. Today, Microsoft announced a 15 percent-off promotion for Windows 7 Professional that should drop reseller prices from the $199.99 list for an upgrade edition to about $170. The lower price will be in effect until Feb. 28, 2009.