Updated November 14, 2014: One of the most popular posts I have ever published at ZDNet was this one, originally titled Seven perfectly legal ways to get Windows 7 cheap (or even free). I wrote it in late 2009, and posted a follow-up one year later. If you had followed my advice, you could have saved hundreds of dollars on upgrades and special deals for students and IT pros.
Five years later, Windows 7 is in the rear-view mirror. Most of the deals listed in those original posts are no longer available. But it is indeed still possible to find great deals on PCs running Windows 7, if you know where to look. It's also possible to tweak and tune newer Windows versions so that they are functionally equivalent to Windows 7.
In that spirit, I've completely reworked this post with information that reflects the current PC market. [Last updated November 14, 2014]
Windows 7 is officially middle-aged. It was publicly released more than five years ago, on October 22, 2009. With each passing day it is getting further and further from the midpoint of Microsoft's 10-year support lifecycle for Windows releases.
In January 2015, Microsoft is scheduled to end mainstream support for Windows 7, and the five-year extended support phase will begin. In January 2020, the Windows 7 support lifecycle will officially end.
But five years is a long, long time, and if you prefer the familiar environment of Windows 7 over its successors, you still have lots of options available.
If you navigate your way through the confusing maze of Windows licensing rules, you'll find that the best deals go to PC manufacturers, which means you'll find the best new and refurbished PCs with Windows 7 preinstalled and ready to run.
If you just need the software, you can still buy Windows 7 software in shrink-wrapped retail and OEM packages, sometimes at prices that are literally too good to be true. If you're an IT pro or developer who needs Windows 7 for testing, you also have subscription options, although they're less of a deal than they were five years ago. For students, the best options come with newer versions of Windows.
Most of the details I include in this post apply to Windows customers in the United States, but you should be able to find similar offers in other countries.
My goal in this post is to point you to deals that customers legitimately qualify for. I am not trying to encourage attempts by anyone to get away with something you're not entitled to. If there are restrictions for a specific offer, I've noted them here.
Ready to get started? Pick a category and go.
Page 2: OEM hardware and softwareThis section is mostly about finding new or used PCs with Windows 7 preinstalled. Did you know that PC makers are still building and selling new PCs with Windows 7? Or that you can find a fully equipped Windows 7 PC today for under $100?
Page 3: Cheap upgrades and free downgrades If you just want to replace the operating system on a PC you already own, you have multiple options for obtaining Windows 7. Some are expensive, others are much cheaper, and one is absolutely free--but only if your PC passes a crucial test.
Page 4: Windows for testing and development If you need Windows 7 to assist in testing or development of software, you have a few options. The best deal of all is, sadly, defunct, but you can still put together a decent test lab at a price that won't break a business bank account.