FAQ: The ins and out of Windows 8 pricing

Whats it cost to whom and for what

Last week, Microsoft and its retail partners revealed a few more details about Windows 8 pricing, clarifying what the Redmond, Wash., developer has purposefully left muddy in the months leading up to its release next week.

Windows 8 may come in fewer flavors than its predecessors, but pricing seems as confusing as ever, in large part because of Microsoft's secrecy -- this cycle it's dribbled out information so slowly it's driven some analysts half-crazy -- with a dash also due to a record-setting discount for upgraders through the end of January.

We've tried to answer the most-pressing questions, filled in the blanks as best we could, and thrown up our hands when we had no more of a clue than you.

If Microsoft answers the open questions -- it again declined to do so last Friday -- we'll be back with an updated FAQ.

Can I score a free copy of Windows 8? Yes, you can, but the OS is good for just 90 days.

The free trial of Windows 8 Pro RTM (release to manufacturing) can be downloaded from this Microsoft website. But when the 90 days are up, you have to replace the trial with a purchased copy or another operating system, and reinstall all applications, other software and files.

Sorry, I like OSes that stick around. What else do you have? How about $14.99? That's the price of a Windows 8 Pro upgrade from Windows 7 for anyone who purchases a new PC between June 2, 2012, and Jan. 31, 2013.

To get the cut-rate upgrade, PC buyers must register at the Windows Upgrade Offer site.

Thanks, but that doesn't work for me. How much for my best deal? For most Windows users, the $39.99 Windows 8 upgrade, which Microsoft will kick off Oct. 26 and offer through Jan. 31, 2013, will be the most economical.

First announced July 2, the upgrade -- from XP, Vista or Windows 7 to Windows 8 Pro -- will be available only as a download at that price. It's unclear if Microsoft will open registrations or pre-orders for the download before Oct. 26, but it definitely will go live on Windows.com that Friday.

At Windows.com, look for something called "Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant," a tool that checks your PC to ensure it will run the OS, takes your order, then kicks off the download and installation process.

I want something I can hold in my hands. How much for an upgrade on DVD? Microsoft will sell you one of those for Windows 8 Pro at the discounted price of $69.99.

From the hints on Newegg.com, one of the online retailers also selling the SKU, or "stock-keeping unit," the price for a Windows 8 Pro upgrade on physical media will jump to $199.99 after Jan. 31, 2013.

In other words, just like the $39.99 online upgrade offer, you should strike quickly.

The $30 surcharge for a DVD may seem steep, but Microsoft has actually done a little bit better by customers than rival Apple: In 2011, Apple sold a USB drive with OS X 10.7, also known as Lion, for $39 more than the download price. Apple didn't even bother to reprise the offer this year for Mountain Lion.

[Note: The Windows 8 Pro online upgrade lets you create a bootable installation DVD or USB drive, so unless you have a very slow Internet connection and want the media to save hours of dial-up agony, that's a less expensive way to get a DVD.]

I run Windows in a virtual machine (VM) on my Mac. What's the damage? Looks like $99.99 for Windows 8, $139.99 for Windows 8 Pro, is the cheapest bet for now.

Those are Newegg.com's pre-sale prices for what Microsoft is now calling "System Builder" -- formerly known as "OEM" -- an edition aimed at small-scale or homebrew PC makers, as well as users who want to run the OS in a virtual machine or in a dual-boot setup on a Mac or PC.

System Builder includes a license that allows for installation in a virtual environment, but offers one-time-use only. "We grant you the right to install [Windows 8] ... as the operating system on a computer that you build for your personal use, or as an additional operating system running on a local virtual machine or a separate partition," states the end-user license agreement (EULA) we've seen. "If you want to use the software on more than one virtual computer, you must obtain separate copies of the software and a separate license for each copy."

I already run older Windows in several virtual machines. How much do I pay? For each VM you upgrade -- up to a max of five per person -- you pay $39.99 to migrate to Windows 8 Pro from XP, Vista or Windows 7 through Jan. 31, 2013.

You upgrade the VMs (or partitions, like a second boot partition on a PC, or Boot Camp on OS X) the same way someone upgrades a physical machine: by running the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant on Windows.com.

Any chance that the System Builder SKUs will fall in price after Oct. 26?

We don't think so. The list prices for the Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional System Builder equivalents are $128 and $179, respectively, according to Amazon. Not surprisingly, Amazon's prices are less: $92 and $128, or close to the Windows 8 System Builder prices on Newegg.

In other words, unless Microsoft drastically reduces the list price of System Builder, the numbers on Newegg are probably the discounted prices.

How much to upgrade a new Windows 8 system to Windows 8 Pro? $69.99 during the discount stretch.

Microsoft's calling this the "Windows 8 Pro Pack;" It consists of an activation code that turns Windows 8 into Windows 8 Pro. The Pro Pack is analogous to the in-place upgrades the company touted as "Anytime Upgrades" for Windows 7.

Newegg said the Pro Pack's $69.99 price was a $30 savings over the regular price of $99.99, with the latter presumably the upgrade's eventual list price. If so, that's a $10 increase over the Windows 7 Home Premium Anytime Upgrade to Windows 7 Professional, which costs $89.99.

It may be cheaper to buy the new PC with Windows 8 Pro already installed, if the option's offered. Sony, for example, charges an additional $50 to bump up a pre-ordered Windows 8 notebook to Windows 8 Pro. ( Dell, on the other hand, adds the same $70 as the price for the Windows 8 Pro Pack to juice a Windows 8 machine to Windows 8 Pro.)

What about Windows 8? What will it cost to upgrade to the consumer version, rather than Windows 8 Pro We don't know because Microsoft's not saying.

Among the blank spots in an imaginary Windows 8 pricing chart are those for the entry-level edition. So far, Microsoft's only talked about upgrades to Windows 8 Pro.

The company may be waiting until Oct. 26 to divulge a price for a Windows 8 upgrade, or dawdling until early next year, after the discounted $39.99 Windows 8 Pro upgrade offer expires.

Or the omission may mean more. It's possible that Microsoft won't even bother to sell an upgrade to Windows 8, leaving that SKU to OEMs to pre-install on their least-expensive consumer PCs, and to the System Builder line.

Clues to that include: The silence surrounding Windows 8, the Oct. 26 availability of Windows 8 Pro Pack, and the absence of a multi-license SKU for Windows 8. Microsoft sold one dubbed "Family Pack" for $150 that was able to upgrade three PCs to Windows 7 Home Premium, but Microsoft's said nothing of something similar for Windows 8.

If the sans-Windows 8 alternative is what Microsoft chooses, it will be even more important for upgraders to move before Jan. 31, 2013, when the $39.99 Windows 8 Pro upgrade expires.

Minus a Windows 8 upgrade option, the choices would narrow to a $199.99 upgrade to Windows 8 Pro, or one of the System Builders, which don't provide support from Microsoft. Neither sounds very attractive.

What if I hate Windows 8? How much will it cost me to get Windows 7 back?

It depends. If it's an old PC you've upgraded to Windows 8 Pro, it should cost you nothing except a lot of time. You'll need to reinstall the previous OS from your media -- which is why it's a good idea to make sure you have it before you try Windows 8 -- and all your applications, as well as restore your files and other data from a backup.

But if you bought a new PC with the new OS already installed, you may need to pony up. Only Windows 8 Pro comes with "downgrade" rights, and then only to Windows 7 Professional, so you'll need media for the latter to use the license that came with the machine.

If you don't have that media, or have Windows 8 on the PC, you'll have to fork over for a new Windows 7 license. Your best bet: A System Builder-like "OEM" Windows 7 license. As we said earlier, Amazon sells that for $92 for Windows 7 Home Premium, $128 for Windows 7 Professional. On Newegg, the prices are $99.99 and $139.99, respectively.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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