Microsoft offers many ways to buy Windows 7. You can buy the operating system preinstalled on a new PC, upgrade an existing PC using a shrink-wrapped retail package, purchase an upgrade online, or build a PC from scratch and install Windows yourself. In each of these cases, you can also take your pick of multiple Windows editions The price you pay will vary, depending on the edition and the sales channel. There are different license agreements associated with each such combination. Those license agreements are contracts that give you specific rights and also include specific limitations.
This might sound arbitrary. Indeed, a common complaint I hear is that Microsoft should simply sell one version of its OS at one price to every customer. That ignores the reality of multiple sales channels, and the fact that some people want the option to pay a lower price if they don't plan to use some features and are willing to pay a higher price for features like BitLocker file encryption.
If you're not a lawyer, the subject of Windows licensing can be overwhelmingly confusing. The good news is that for most circumstances you are likely to encounter as a consumer or small business buyer, the licensing rules are fairly simple and controversy never arises. But for IT pros, enthusiasts, and large enterprises knowing these rules can save a lot of money and prevent legal hassles.
I have been studying the topic of Windows licensing for many years. As I have discovered, Microsoft does not have all of this information organized in one convenient location. Much of it, in fact, is buried in long, dry license agreements and on sites that are available only to partners. I couldn't find this information in one convenient place, so I decided to do the job myself. I gathered details from many public and private sources and summarized the various types of Windows 7 license agreements available to consumers and business customers. Note that this table and the accompanying descriptions deliberately exclude a small number of license types: for example, I have omitted academic and government licenses, as well as those provided as part of MSDN and TechNet subscriptions and those included with Action Pack subscriptions for Microsoft partners. With those exceptions, I believe this list includes every license situation that the overwhelming majority of Windows customers will encounter in the real world.
The table below is your starting point. The license types listed in the columns of this table are arranged in rough order of price, from least expensive to most expensive. For a detailed discussion of each license type, see the following pages, which explain some of the subtleties and exceptions to these rules. And a final, very important note: I am not a lawyer. This post is not legal advice. I have provided an important disclaimer on the final page of this post. Please read it.
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Although the table above is packed with information, it's not the whole story. Please click through to the following pages for detailed explanations.
Page 2: OEM versions
Page 3: Upgrade versions
Page 4: Full and Volume License versions
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