How to get Windows 7 for free

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    Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer talks about Windows 7 at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in January.
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When Windows 7 ships to stores on Oct. 22, a copy will cost you a few hundred dollars – unless you play your cards right.

Microsoft announced today that the basic "Home Premium" version will sell for $199.99 ($119.99 for an upgrade from Vista) and the high-end "Ultimate" edition will fetch $319.99 ($219.99 for the update). Nowadays, that's half the price of an entry-level computer!

Fret not, antsy shoppers. Microsoft also rolled out a way to get Windows 7 for free.

Because Windows Vista got such a bad rap, the company wants people to move over to Windows 7 as soon as possible. The faster it can convert customers, the sooner it can bury all those Vista jokes and Apple commercials – not to mention buoy its operating system sales, which make up about 30 percent of Microsoft's $60 billion annual revenue.

Here's the deal: Anyone who buys a Vista computer between June 26 (this Friday) and Jan. 31, 2010, will get a free upgrade to Windows 7 shortly after it releases. This includes the important back-to-school rush that hits in August and any lingering Vista PCs that wind up under a Christmas tree this winter.

But, there is a catch. The program only works with participating manufacturers or retailers. Also, some stores or PC makers might still charge a small fee for the upgrade.

Starting Friday, Microsoft will keep a list of participants here. HP has already signed on for the free upgrades.

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