The Windows Insider program lets members test new versions of Windows before they’re available to the general public, and many people have been participating in the program to test Windows 10 ahead of its July 29th launch date.
But what happens to those testers on July 29th? Well, it depends.
So here’s the deal. Say you installed the Windows 10 Preview by upgrading from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. In that case, as long as you were using a “Genuine” version of Windows to start with (which means you had a valid, activated Windows license), then you’re good to go. You can leave opt to stop receiving Windows 10 Insider Preview builds and just update to Windows 10 final when it’s released on July 29th.
What if you downloaded a Windows 10 Preview ISO, burned it to a disc, and then performed a clean install? In that case, you basically wiped all evidence that you had a Genuine Windows license on your PC and in order to get the free upgrade to Windows 10, you’re going to have to roll back to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1… and I hope you’ve still got that little sticker with your Windows license key in case you’re doing a clean install rather than restoring from a backup.
It’s kind of a pain… especially because if I recall correctly, when the first previews of Windows 10 were made available, there was no option to upgrade… at least not from Windows 7. That’s why I performed a clean install on the old laptop I’ve been using to test the OS. But it makes sense, because while Microsoft is giving away Windows 10 as a free upgrade to everyone who’s running a licensed version of Windows 7 or later, the company never intended to give away Windows 10 to everyone.
And that’s pretty much what Microsoft would have to do if the company were to allow anyone running the Windows 10 Preview to update to Windows 10 and remain activated.
This probably won’t affect all that many people. There are millions of people using Windows, and most of them probably never bought boxed copies of the operating system. They bought computers that came with Windows pre-installed. If they’re still running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, they can upgrade to Windows 10 for free anytime between July 29th, 2015 and July 28th, 2016.
If they’ve decided to upgrade their OS to the Windows 10 Preview, they can also get a free upgrade to Windows 10 final… as long as they used the upgrade process rather than a clean install.
Those of us who did clean installs, on the other hand, are going to have to either fish around for our backup media, remain in the Windows Insider program to continue testing preview builds of upcoming software, or just choose another operating system altogether. There are plenty of options for folks who don’t want to worry about whether their OS is “genuine” or not.
One option you don’t have is to download and install the free Windows 10 Preview on a system that’s running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or no operating system at all and then magically get a fully licensed version of Windows 10 final on July 29th.
Despite what you may have heard earlier this year, Microsoft isn’t giving pirates a way to upgrade to “genuine” Windows for free (The company just has a way with words… and it’s not a good way).
And Microsoft’s also not letting you get Windows 10 for free if you haven’t already paid for Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 (or at least paid for a PC that already had the software on it when you bought it).
But… there is kind of a way to keep using Windows 10 for free. Just stay in the Windows Insider program. Microsoft provides you with an activated prerelease license key. It’s just that you’ll be using prerelease versions of Windows which are set to expire after a certain period of time. So in order to keep using/testing Windows, you’ll need to continue updating to future prerelease builds.
It sounds like you can do this for as long as Microsoft continues to offer its Windows Insider program… which may not be forever. But it does provide an alternative to rolling back your software before upgrading to Windows 10.
Update: Still confused about your options for upgrading to Windows 10 final? The folks at Lifehacker put together this handy flow chart: