Microsoft details free Windows 7 upgrade deal

HP only major vendor so far to promise no-charge upgrade, more expected

Microsoft Corp. today officially unveiled details of the Windows 7 upgrade program it kicks off tomorrow for buyers of new PCs.

Called the "Windows 7 Upgrade Option Program," the deal provides free or nearly-free upgrades to Windows 7 for people who purchase a new Vista PC between June 26, 2009, and Jan. 31, 2010.

People who buy a PC equipped with Windows Vista Home Premium, Business or Ultimate from a participating retailer or computer maker will get an upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate at some point after Oct. 22, when Microsoft is scheduled to ship the new operating system.

The program is a repeat of one Microsoft launched in 2006, when it sought to keep sales of XP systems from stalling by offering users free upgrades to the soon-to-be-available Vista.

"The Windows upgrade option for Windows 7 is something that we're bringing back from the Windows Vista era," Brad Brooks, vice president for Windows consumer marketing, said in an Microsoft-conducted interview posted on the company's site.

Because of its October launch, Windows 7 won't be available during the back-to-school sales season, which really cranks up in August. And that's one reason why Microsoft chose to introduce the upgrade program so early. "You don't have to wait until [Oct. 22] to get a new Windows PC," Microsoft spokesman Brandon LeBlanc said today in a blog post trumpeting the program. "In fact, we know many people need that new PC sooner -- for back to school, specifically." Microsoft won't charge retailers and OEMs for the upgrade, but it has ceded control over the fulfillment process, letting the sellers set fees.

Hewlett-Packard Co., for instance, said today that it will provide the Windows 7 upgrade to eligible customers free of charge. "There are no shipping and handling fees," said an HP spokeswoman. An HP page dedicated to the Upgrade Option, however, didn't offer any details today on how the company will run the program, but a statement earlier in the day promised that users would also receive a utility disc that includes a step-by-step guide to installation and a tool that seeks out and pre-installs drivers necessary for Windows 7.

Microsoft's current Upgrade Option site has a list of several computer makers, including Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, that sell laptops that qualify for a free or discounted Windows 7 upgrade.

Because the retailers and OEMs are doing the scut work of the upgrade program, customers will see a variety of deals and delivery dates. The soonest someone would receive an upgrade DVD is Oct. 22, the retail availability date for Windows 7. It may be weeks later, however, before many customers see those discs.

That was a problem in 2007, when users who had been promised an upgrade to Vista grew increasingly frustrated by delays. A month after Vista's launch, for example, Dell and HP customers blasted the vendors for failing to deliver upgrades.

Users who purchased retail Vista packages may also qualify for an upgrade to the equivalent Windows 7 product, Microsoft confirmed in an FAQ it published on its site today. It's unclear, however, whether those upgrades to Windows 7 will be available to buyers of Vista upgrade editions or only the more-expensive "full" versions.

Microsoft also confirmed today that, as part of the upgrade program, it will offer Windows 7 upgrades to people who buy PCs that have been factory-downgraded to Windows XP Professional. In April, TechARP.com, a site that regularly publishes leaked memos from Microsoft to its computer-manufacturing partners, revealed that upgrades would be offered to downgraders.

"A system that was sold with a Windows Vista Business Certificate of Authenticity (COA) and has Windows XP Professional installed, and meets all other program offer requirements, can be eligible for the Windows 7 Upgrade Option offer," Microsoft said in its FAQ.

Users running XP-powered machines, downgraded or not, must do a "clean install" of Windows 7, however, which means that they will have to reinstall all applications, re-create Windows settings and restore data from a backup after the XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade.

While PCs downgraded to XP Professional may qualify for the Windows 7 upgrade, netbooks running Windows XP Home -- the almost universally-installed OS on those thin, light and inexpensive notebooks -- won't be included, even though Microsoft has bragged that Windows 7 can run on many netbooks. A month ago, Microsoft backtracked and removed the three-application limit it had imposed on Windows 7 Starter, the edition it is pushing OEMs to install on the smallest netbooks.

Europeans face a tougher upgrade road, thanks to Microsoft's decision to yank Internet Explorer from Windows 7 editions sold in the EU. Those customers will receive a full edition of the corresponding version of Windows 7, which they will have to use to do a clean install of the new operating system.

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