Perfectly legal ways you can still get Windows 7 cheap (or even free)

Perfectly legal ways you can still get Windows 7 cheap (or even free)

Summary: Windows 7 is more than five years old. Most of the cheap upgrade offers that were available when it was fresh and new are long gone. But if you prefer the familiar Windows 7 interface (or need it for testing and evaluation) you can still find great deals. Here are all the details you need.

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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.

Page 2: Old software on new PCs -->

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Legal, Microsoft, Software, Software Development, Windows, The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

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75 comments
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  • Are you still buying Windows 7?

    If you see any strategies I missed, leave them in the Talkbacks below.

    As always, I ask only that you play nice and avoid personal remarks and bickering.
    Ed Bott
    • paying money for a consumer version of the OS

      Hi Ed,

      Thanks for your article!

      I recently had to build a PC. I was on a budget and when it came time to choose and OS, I simply could not justify paying $100+ dollars for the OS when the computer only cost me 300 to build.

      I'd love to run Windows, but when I looked at my use case, which was Web Browsing, occasional game (via steam) and lightweight computing the price seemed too high considering that I could download Linux and get all I needed (Ubuntu).

      Now I'm not being anti-microsoft here, It's just that it seems like for the consumer..paying that much money for the OS feels like an anachronism.

      Microsoft would be far better served by GIVING the os to consumers and PC builders but continuing to charge enterprises and big OEMs for it. Isn't that where they make their money anyway? Plus given the new CEO's direction with services being king...why in the world are they still charging consumers for windows anyway?
      Doug0915
      • not much

        You can't be doing much with your computer if everything you need is in Linux.
        Coors4bob
        • Uses for computer

          Are you Trolling or are you serious? If you are serious I could list a whole bunch of things I do with this box like media server, transcoding blue rays to my hard disk, games, etc that I think would pretty much prove you wrong.
          Doug0915
        • Errrr

          Not surprised a Linux zealot would post here. I guess reading this while you're compiling your binaries again? Fix that Bash problem yet? A reminder that Linux [which includes crappy Chromebooks] is still at just 1.45% of the market share. Windows? Still over 50% [if including tablets and other gadgets].
          Gisabun
          • I'm a Zealot? (or are you another Troll?)

            You mean me? I'm no Zealot, I have a Macbook, had a windows system before having to rebuild and a Linux system now due to cost. I've build Windows systems for years prior to this one.

            No, no need to compile binaries. Updates? I get a pop up on the screen, it asks me to apply updates and I click yes. If I recall that was the same way.

            Sounds like you are thinking of Linux from 2002.
            Doug0915
          • Everyone has their own preferences

            I don't understand why people have to shoot down others preferences just because their preferences with regard to OS, cell phone etc differs from their own.

            Everyone has their own needs and reasons for using a particular technology - if it works for them then what business is it of yours.

            Sure, throw out some constructive advice, such as you'd save money if you did this or you'll find it more efficient to go this route etc.

            So often on these comment sections people take offense to the choices others make and go on the offensive and get overly confrontational - quite pathetic and unnecessary if you ask me but oh well.
            jonandrews84
        • Nuh .. you wrong!

          I use a version of Linux that uses the Ubuntu Kernel on my Laptops it uses a light weight UI and runs on machines that ran XP and runs quicker, I also use it on ex Vista units, I use the internet (Browser and Torrent client) Word predecessor, spreadsheet program and a PIM (Password Manager) in fact the database for the password manager was created in a Windows program and a Linux equivalent is available, all used daily, as well as some other programs I use intermittently, which is probably a lot more that a lot of people who pay a lot of money for both hardware and software, if I had known that my TV Tuner cards were never going to be supported I'd have invested in ones that would have as XMBC is far better than Media Centre!! if you had used any distro that has a software centre you'd know that virtually any software for any purpose is available and the greater of it as good or better than propriety! and the software centre installs your choices as well as installs any dependencies needed for that package, I could not be happier! and there's little to no need to worry about using or updating anti Viral/Maleware programs and having your system bogged down supporting that!
          dookus
          • Forgot to mention

            I'm no Linux zealot either, I'm a fan of what is best value for me, and for my desktop Win7 wins hands down as Linux does not support nor does it look like it ever will my TV Tuner cards ... but if it did!! there's a better alternative for me that's not a MS product.
            dookus
        • It doesn't matter. Are his needs being met? Is he happy ...

          ... with his decision. That is all that matters.
          M Wagner
        • REALLY???

          Most of the internet runs on Linux. Not to mention virtually every router, switch, TV. The list is endless.

          I have Linux on my laptop and with it I do my accounts, watch TV, stream music to and from it. I run a Linux server at home to which I connect my Apple, Linux and windows devices.

          Oh and I also use it to design Windows Server configurations within a virtual machine.

          So I suggest you drop your bigoted viewpoint and open your eyes to what is possible.
          MarkMewords
      • Price

        Hi Doug,

        While I don't see the benefit of Microsoft giving away licenses to consumers, since they already have market share, I did want to point out that Windows 8 was available from Microsoft at the low price of $40 for a long time. I bought it for myself, and upgraded to Windows 8.1 when it became available. They did eventually increase the price of the software, but it was announced way ahead of time. I think Microsoft may not charge as much, in the future, as they have in the past for OS. They seem to be focusing on services and devices these days.
        DamonDelp
        • Price

          At $30 dollar price point (or probably even 40) would of been fine. I would of certainly bought a copy of Windows 8.1 for that.
          Doug0915
          • Agree on the $40 price point

            Totally agree that a $40 price point for Windows would be ideal. I build all my own systems, and $100-$150 for Windows can be the single biggest expense, and sometimes a significant percent of the overall cost. Not to discount Windows' value, but that is hard to swallow.

            I picked up several licenses of 8 when it was initially offered for $40 each just to have around. I've since used them all, and had to buy a full OEM license for my last system. Hopefully Microsoft revises their pricing structure on Windows with 10, they do seem to be finally getting with the times in many other areas.

            If Linux serves your needs, that's great. I use it periodically for various tasks, but always come back to Windows for it's overall usability and the quality of available software. In my experience, Linux always costs far more in time/hassle/productivity than it saves in dollars.
            PC987
          • Polish

            Contrary to what some die hard Linux advocates of the mainstream distros would say, even compared to Ubuntu or RedHat Windows 7+ is far more polished definitely in regards to the user interface and integration.

            I looked at my needs and the extra hardware I could buy with a spare $100+ building a low end system and realized I could get a significant hardware upgrade by not paying for an OS.

            I still think MS should give away the OS to people building their own PC and upgrades to people buying their own computers. Still license it so they can differentiate and charge the big OEMs and enterprises. They'd get good PR and the $$ lost would be trivial for them. From what I understand, the profit from retail sales of Windows is minuscule compared to Enterprise and OEM sales (which is where the money comes from).
            Doug0915
          • Time equals money so yes, I have to agree.

            As we grow older, and our time is filled up with other things, the will to tinker with an operating system, or support yourself and others to save a few bucks quickly fades away. OEMs fully support their systems and, if you buy Windows with your OEM system, you can get full support from the OEM (and from Microsoft via chat).

            You buy and OEM system with Linux on it, you will not get software support unless you buy support for an added fee - which usually exceeds what you would have paid for Windows on the same system.

            It's your time and your money. As long as the solution you choose, meets your needs, you've made a good decision.
            M Wagner
        • The Benefit

          Other than a benefit to people like myself :) The benefit to Microsoft would primarily be one of marketing. It's good PR.
          Doug0915
      • Doug0915: "paying money for a consumer version of the OS"

        You should look at refurbished, redistributed and otherwise discounted Windows-based PCs from Lenovo (at its online outlet store), Dell and HP. Some great deals can be had for Windows 8 Core (formerly, Home) and Professional pre-loads as well as Windows 7 pre-loads (it that's what you want).
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Refurbished

          I'm sure that's the case, but I think I was able to get a faster computer with more features hardware wise building it myself.
          Doug0915
      • It is really quite simple. Microsoft wants to encourage Windows ...

        ... end-users to see the value buying a new PC from a Windows OEM instead of upgrading the OS on a five-year-old PC that is one-eighth the speed of a comparable brand-new PC which costs less than the original PC.

        If the OS upgrade were free to everyone, many price-conscious end-users would not bother buying a new PC until they absolutely had to.

        In short, giving away Windows hurts Microsoft's OEMs. And selling shrink-wrapped Windows at retail costs Microsoft a lot in distribution costs that they don't incur when selling directly to their OEMs.

        You say you would LIKE to use Windows if it were free but you are not willing to pay money for it because your cannot justify the cost based upon your needs. Fair enough. Your needs are being met. And, you can still use Office Online and OneDrive if you should choose to in the future.

        Why should Microsoft accommodate people who, in the end, are not (nor are they likely to become) Microsoft customers?
        M Wagner