FAQ: How much will Windows 7 cost you?

By , Computerworld |  Windows, cost, Windows 7

Last week, Microsoft unveiled retail pricing for Windows 7, the successor to Vista and Microsoft's hope for a revival in operating system buzz.

But as soon as the sheet was yanked off the price board, people started asking questions. How much for this? What will I pay for that? The questions were endless, it seemed, even though Microsoft culled Home Basic from the line-up, exiling it to the "emerging markets" category and banning it from retail.

You'd think that with just three retail editions -- Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate -- navigating price waters would be a snap. Not so.

Your questions on cost, our answers on prices follow.

What's the cheapest price for Windows 7? Unless you're buying a new PC -- more on that later -- the best bet now is to reserve your copy at Microsoft's online store or one of the retailers participating in the discount offer.

Microsoft's selling Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade for $49.99 until July 11 in the U.S. and Canada, and Windows 7 Professional Upgrade for $99.99. Actually, "until July 11" might not be accurate, as Microsoft has made it clear with repeated references to "until supplies last" that it may cut short the deal. Since the company hasn't been straight about what that limit is, if you know you want Windows 7, get it sooner rather than later.

Most retailers have followed Microsoft on prices, but some have strayed. Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's members-only, mass-quantity chain, has the lowest prices we've seen: $44.88 for Home Premium, $94.88 for Professional. Costco, another big-box store, comes in second with prices of $47.99 and $97.99.

Should I wait? Is it possible Windows 7 will be cheaper in a month? Probably not, say analysts. Microsoft may return with another discount later -- as the Oct. 22 launch date gets within shouting distance -- but a deeper price cut this summer is very unlikely.

How can I find the best deal online? If you don't trust our scouting report (see above), or figure there's an even better deal, reach out to the participating retailers to see their upgrade prices. In the U.S., they are: Amazon.com, Best Buy, Costco, Frys, Sam's Club, Newegg, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Quill, TigerDirect and Wal-Mart. Microsoft's posted links to each retailer, as well as to its own online store, here.

I keep hearing about a free upgrade. What gives? That's the premise of what Microsoft has dubbed the "Windows Upgrade Option" (WUO) program, the newest version of what it called "Technology Guarantee" in the run-up to Vista's 2007 launch.

WUO provides a free Windows 7 upgrade to people who buy certain PCs between now and Jan. 31, 2010 that come with Vista pre-installed, or have been sold with a Vista license and then factory-downgraded to XP.

The upgrade, of course, won't be available until after Oct. 22, Windows 7's ship date; in fact, it might be weeks or months after that date until you receive the upgrade.

Is the upgrade really free? Depends. Microsoft's said it isn't charging computer makers for the upgrades, but some OEMs will slap on a shipping and handling fee. Others won't.

Hewlett-Packard, the world's biggest seller of PCs, has promised it won't charge a dime. But No. 2 Dell has been vague about any fee, saying on its Windows 7 upgrade page that "shipping charges will vary by region."

What PCs qualify for the "free" upgrade? Each computer maker has its own list, so check with your preferred OEM or retailer for more info. Generally speaking, however, machines equipped with Vista Home Premium, Vista Business or Vista Ultimate qualify. PCs downgraded to XP Professional from Vista Business or Vista Ultimate are also eligible, based on the Vista license sold with the system.

Do I get a free upgrade to Windows 7 if I buy a shrink-wrapped copy of Vista now? Yes. If you buy a copy now of Vista Home Premium, Vista Business or Vista Ultimate -- an OEM, Upgrade or Full Packaged Product (FPP) version -- you should also get a coupon for a free upgrade to the corresponding Windows 7 edition.

Not every retailer is doing this -- at least, we couldn't find mention of it on every online store we checked -- but the upgrade is prominently mentioned on such online retailers as Newegg and Amazon.com.

Are those upgrades really free? Again, it depends. Amazon.com, for example, will charge $9.99 for an upgrade to Windows 7 to retail buyers of Vista, while Newegg just says some Vista editions "include free Windows 7 upgrade coupon" but it doesn't go into detail.

Can I get the discounted or free Windows 7 upgrade if I'm still running XP? Yes, but you'll have to do a "clean install" on your PC, which means you'll need to back up your data, install Windows 7, then restore the data and reinstall all applications.

There's no "in-place" upgrade path from XP to Windows 7, unlike the route available via Vista.

What price will I pay if I dawdle and don't buy Windows 7 until after July 11? Once the discount deal expires, pre-order prices will revert to their suggested list; that's what you'll pay after the Oct. 22 launch as well.

In the U.S., Microsoft has set the suggested list price for Windows 7 at between $119.99 for an upgrade (Home Premium) and $319.99 for a FPP (Ultimate). The editions marked "Upgrade" are cheaper in every case than the corresponding FPP; the former is the overwhelming choice, since it presupposes an older version of Windows on the PC. (That doesn't prevent you from using an "Upgrade" edition as a first-time install on a PC, or in a virtual machine on, say, a Mac.)

For quick references, see our price chart below.

What about cheaper OEM editions? How much will they cost? Unknown for now. We weren't able to find any "OEM" edition pricing at the usual suspects, but assume that Microsoft will be offering Windows 7 to small mom-and-pop computer makers who build PCs.

OEM prices are traditionally cheaper than even "Upgrade" editions. The downside: The license bans users from transferring the license from one PC to another, and comes sans support of any kind.

I live in Europe. What will I pay for Windows 7? More than if you lived in the U.S.

European prices are a veritable snake pit of confusion. First of all, Microsoft won't be selling "Upgrade" editions of the new OS until at least 2010, since it faces technical issues with upgrading from Windows Vista. In fact, Microsoft will block customers in the European Union from doing "in-place" upgrades, which would leave some version of Internet Explorer (IE) on the machine.

That stems from its decision to head off EU antitrust regulators, who have charged the company with illegally tying IE to Windows and are considering more drastic measures.

Instead, it will sell FPP versions of Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate at upgrade SKU prices. Those prices range from €119.99 for Home Premium, €285 for Professional and €299 for Ultimate. All are substantially higher than the prices for U.S. buyers, a fact that Microsoft has tried to dispute.

You said "until at least 2010." What happens then? We're not sure. Microsoft's not coming right out and saying it, but their top Windows exec, Bill Vehgte, this week said, "In the future we may have an upgrade offering of Windows 7 available in Europe, and at that time we would revert to differential pricing of the full and upgrade versions, as we have in the rest of the world."

In plain English, that means that the FPP of Windows 7 may see a price increase as Upgrade SKUs appear in the EU. The full version of Windows 7 Home Premium has been priced at €199.99, Professional at €309 and Ultimate at €319.

I have a Mac. How much will I pay to upgrade to a new OS Hey, who let you in here?

Okay, smart guy, you get Mac OS 10.6, aka "Snow Leopard," sometime in September for the low, low price of just $29.

Any special deals, discounts, Upgrade SKUs, FPP editions, factory-downgrade prices for me? No. $29. That's it. Repeat after me: $29, $29, $29.

WINDOWS 7 RETAIL PRICES

Windows 7 Price Vista Price % Decrease
Home Premium Upgrade $119.99 $129.99 7.7%
Professional Upgrade $199.99 $199.99 0.0%
Ultimate Upgrade $219.99 $219.99 0.0%
Home Premium Full $199.99 $239.99 16.7%
Professional Full $299.99 $299.99 0.0%
Ultimate Full $319.99 $319.99 0.0%

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