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FAQ: How to get Windows 7 on the cheap

Microsoft's new OS can be had for free, but there are catches

August 16, 2009 06:16 PM ET

Computerworld - 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."

Success for Windows 7 can't come too soon for Microsoft, which saw its desktop operating system revenues plunge 29% 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.

Okay, 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.

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