Microsoft launches free Windows 7 upgrade deal

HP only major vendor so far to promise no-charge upgrade, more expected

Microsoft today officially unveiled details of the Windows 7 upgrade program it kicks off tomorrow for buyers of new PCs.

Called "Windows 7 Upgrade Option Program," the deal provides free or nearly-free upgrades to Windows 7 for people who purchase a new Vista PC between June 26, 2009 and Jan. 31, 2010.

People who buy a PC equipped with Windows Vista Home Premium, Business or Ultimate from a participating retailer or computer maker will get an upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate at some point after Oct. 22, when Microsoft ships the new OS.

The program is a repeat of one Microsoft launched in 2006 to keep sales of XP systems from stalling by offering them a free upgrade to the soon-to-be-available Vista.

"The Windows upgrade option for Windows 7 is something that we're bringing back from the Windows Vista era," Brad Brooks, vice president for Windows consumer marketing, said in an Microsoft-conducted interview posted on the company's site.

Windows 7 launch will miss the back-to-school sales season, which really cranks up in August, one factor that led to the early introduction of Upgrade Option. "You don't have to wait until [Oct. 22] to get a new Windows PC," said Brandon LeBlanc, a Microsoft spokesman, in a blog post today as he trumpeted the program. "In fact, we know many people need that new PC sooner -- for back to school, specifically." Microsoft won't charge retailers and OEMs for the upgrade, but has ceded control over the fulfillment process, letting the sellers set fees.

Hewlett-Packard, for instance, said today that it will provide the Windows 7 upgrade to eligible customers free of charge. "There are no shipping and handling fees," said an HP spokeswoman. An HP page dedicated to the Upgrade Option, however, didn't offer any details Thursday on how the company will run the program, but a statement earlier in the day promised users would also receive a utility disc that includes a step-by-step guide to installation and a tool that seeks out and preinstalls drivers necessary for Windows 7.

Microsoft's current Upgrade Option site lists other computer makers, including Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba as selling laptops that qualify for a free or discounted Windows 7 upgrade.

Because the retailers and OEMs are doing the scut work of the upgrade program, customers will see a variety of deals and delivery dates. The soonest someone would receive an upgrade DVD is Oct. 22, the retail availability date for Windows 7. It may be weeks later, however, before buyers see those discs.

That was a problem in 2007, when users promised an upgrade to Vista grew increasingly frustrated by delays. A month after Vista's launch, for example, Dell and HP customers blasted the vendors for failing to deliver upgrades.

Retail Vista packages may also qualify for an upgrade to the equivalent Windows 7 product, Microsoft confirmed in an FAQ it published on its site today. It's unclear, however, whether those upgrades to Windows 7 will be available to buyers of Vista upgrade editions or only the more-expensive "full" versions.

Microsoft also confirmed today that it will offer a Windows 7 upgrade to people who buy PCs during the program's run that have been factory-downgraded to Windows XP Professional. In April,, a site that regularly publishes leaked memos from Microsoft to its computer-manufacturing partners, revealed that upgrades would be offered to downgraders.

"A system that was sold with a Windows Vista Business Certificate of Authenticity (COA) and has Windows XP Professional installed, and meets all other program offer requirements, can be eligible for the Windows 7 Upgrade Option offer," Microsoft said in its FAQ.

Users running XP-powered machines, downgraded or not, must do a "clean install" of Windows 7, however, which means that they will have to reinstall all applications, recreate Windows settings and restore data from a backup after the XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade.

While PCs downgraded to XP Professional may qualify for the Windows 7 upgrade, netbooks running Windows XP Home -- the almost universally-installed OS on those thin, light and inexpensive notebooks -- won't be included, even though Microsoft has bragged that Windows 7 can run on many netbooks. A month ago, Microsoft backtracked, and removed the three-application limit it had imposed on Windows 7 Starter, the edition it is pushing OEMs to install on the smallest netbooks.

Europeans face a tougher upgrade road, due to Microsoft's decision to yank Internet Explorer from Windows 7 editions sold in the EU and the U.K. Those customers will receive a full edition of the corresponding version of Windows 7, which they'll use to do a "clean install" of the new OS.

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

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