Perfectly legal ways you can still get Windows 7 cheap (or even free)
Windows 7 is more than six 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.
Updated November 25, 2015: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.
Six 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 25, 2015]
Windows 7 is officially middle-aged. It was publicly released more than six 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 ended mainstream support for Windows 7, and the five-year extended support phase began. In January 2020, the Windows 7 support lifecycle will officially end.
But four 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 six 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...
Old software on new PCs
By far the best way to buy Windows 7 today, six years into its lifecycle, is to purchase it preinstalled on a new PC. You get a warranty and, more importantly, you get the OEM's assurance that the hardware and software were designed to work together. This option also spares you from the pain of Windows setup, especially the hassles of hunting down essential drivers and system-specific updates when you upgrade (or downgrade) a PC.
New brand-name PCs with Windows 7 preinstalled
Yes, big-name PC makers can still install Windows 7 on new PCs. There's a catch, though: As of October 31, 2014, any new PCs they offer must include the more expensive Windows 7 Professional. Machines that were manufactured before that date with Windows 7 Home Premium can still be sold.
The trick in shopping for these machines is to skip the front door and go straight for the business section. Among online merchants, for example, Dell offers filters to show all available desktops and all-in-ones and laptops running Windows 7. HP has separate pages for business desktops and laptops, but you have to look at each model to find the models with Windows 7 available.
Big online retailers that serve business markets should have similar selections covering a wide range of brands and the full spectrum of prices.
Used and refurbished PCs with Windows 7 preinstalled
There are plenty of sites where you can find "factory reconditioned" PCs for sale at legitimately low prices. Amazon-owned Woot, for example, always has lots of choices in its Computers section, although you'll have to dig into the specs to confirm that the operating system you're looking for is included.
Other online sellers with similarly extensive selections include the following:
Tiger Direct offers "off lease" Windows 7 PCs for as little as $100.
Newegg has an enormous selection of refurbished PCs as well. Many are too old to recommend except for diehard bargain hunters, but if you know what you're looking for you can find perfectly good hardware that costs less than you'd pay for a retail copy of the Windows 7 version it includes.
Staples has a similar selection in its online store.
I don't recommend taking a chance with random sellers on eBay or Craigslist--not when there are so many well-established merchants that offer proper warranties and return policies, as well as an assurance that the underlying Windows license is legitimate.
OEM Windows software for new or refurbished PCs
Under Microsoft's arcane licensing rules, you can legitimately purchase OEM copies of Windows 7 (any edition). However, the license agreement with those copies explicitly prohibits you from using that software on a PC you build or refurbish for your own personal use. Crazy, huh?
There are no technical limitations to prevent you from using OEM software on your own PC, although this software will work only for a clean installation and not for an upgrade. In the past, Microsoft has been remarkably inconsistent in its advice to customers about whether this practice is allowed. (See "Is it OK to use OEM Windows on your own PC? Don't ask Microsoft.")
To make the subject even more confusing, Microsoft briefly changed its licensing rules with Windows 8, adding a Personal Use Rights clause that allowed individuals to buy OEM Windows and install it on personal PCs. That change lasted exactly one year: with the launch of Windows 8.1, Microsoft restored the old licensing terms.
The bottom line? Yes, you can install an OEM copy of Windows 7 on a PC for your own personal use; I recommend that you avoid doing so for your business, however, especially if you have a licensing agreement with Microsoft.
Upgrade (and downgrade) options
Most of the readily available options for new PCs include the latest version of Windows--that's Windows 10 today (with many Windows 8.1 PCs still on retail and online shelves).
If you love a particular piece of hardware and your preferred version of Windows 7 isn't available on the build-to-order options list, don't despair. You have four choices available.
Exercise your downgrade rights (free)
If you purchase a new PC with a business version of Windows 8, Windows 8.1, or Windows 10 already installed by the manufacturer, the license agreement gives you the right to downgrade to Windows 7 Professional. So if your PC originally came with Windows 8/8.1/10 Pro, you can replace the installed operating system with Windows 7 Professional at no cost.
Note that downgrade rights are not included on systems that ship with the core version of Windows 8, 8.1, or 10. Likewise, OEM System Builder copies of Windows 8.x and later do not include downgrade rights.
To exercise downgrade rights, you can use media for Windows 7 Professional that you acquire from any source. During installation, don't enter a product key. After completing installation, you'll need to activate your newly installed copy of Windows 7 by using the telephone activation option and explaining that you are using downgrade rights.
Transfer a license (no cost)
Did you purchase a retail copy of Windows 7 any time in the past six years? Any full or upgrade license purchased through the retail channel or directly from Microsoft can legally be transferred to another PC. That includes any of the deeply discounted upgrade offers that Microsoft made available when Windows 7 was new, including the three-license Family Packs of Windows 7 Home Premium.
If you have the original Windows 7 installation media and product key and have removed the operating system from the PC on which it was originally installed, you can reuse that key on any PC. You might be required to activate over the phone; when asked, be sure to specify (truthfully) that your copy of Windows 7 is installed on only one PC.
Note that OEM copies of Windows 7 that were installed on PCs by the manufacturer are locked to that device and cannot be transferred.
Buy an upgrade license
If the PC on which you want to install Windows 7 originally included a license for any version of Windows, you can buy a Windows 7 upgrade license from any vendor that has the software in stock and install that upgrade on your PC. You don't need to reinstall the old operating system; if you want to perform a clean install using upgrade media, you can use the workaround I describe in this post: Boot from the upgrade media and do an installation without entering a product key. Then use the same media to "upgrade" your brand-new installation.
Note that if you have a PC with Windows 7 Home Premium installed, you can use the Anytime Upgrade option to upgrade it to Windows 7 Professional for $90. Follow the instructions in this post.
Buy a full retail license
The most expensive option is to purchase a full retail license for Windows 7. It's guaranteed to work with any PC, with no installation or licensing complications. The problem is finding this software, which Microsoft stopped selling years ago. Most online merchants today offer only OEM copies of Windows 7.
Subscriptions for Windows and more
All the options I described earlier apply to PCs you plan to use in the home or office. But if you're a developer, an IT pro, or a student, you might have a completely different set of needs, including a desire to have one or more PCs running Windows 7 for testing purposes.
Every MSDN subscription includes access to the latest version of Windows with multiple activations. You can choose from different levels of MSDN subscriptions. The cheapest is the MSDN Operating Systems subscription, which costs $699 for the first year and $499 for renewals. It offers full access to every client and server version of Windows (going as far back as Windows 3.1).
Prices go up for other editions, with different MSDN subscription levels including access to other Microsoft software, toolkits, and SDKs as well as credit for Microsoft Azure. For a full list of available packages, see this chart.
The MSDN license agreement is detailed and worth reading in full. There's an excellent summary of your rights as a subscriber here. This paragraph is especially noteworthy:
Many MSDN subscribers use a computer for mixed use--both design, development, testing, and demonstration of your programs (the use allowed under the MSDN Subscription license) and some other use. Using the software in any other way, such as for doing email, playing games, or editing a document is another use and is not covered by the MSDN Subscription license. When this happens, the underlying operating system must also be licensed normally by purchasing a regular copy of Windows such as the one that came with a new OEM PC.
If you're a professional developer or designer who uses Microsoft products, MSDN subscriptions can be a bargain. If you just want cheap access to Windows 7, you have better options.
Microsoft DreamSpark (free)
If you are enrolled in a science, technology, engineering, or math department at an educational institution that subscribes to Microsoft DreamSpark Premium, you can get free software for use in your studies.
(The DreamSpark Standard program is available to individuals for $99 a year or $199 for three years. It includes server software and development tools but does not include Windows client software.)
To check your eligibility through these programs, register here using a school-issued email address or a code supplied by an academic institution.
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