Windows is expensive. The free Windows 10 upgrade has expired and both Windows 7 and 8.1 have reached their “end of sales” date. This means you can no longer buy these Windows versions, nor PCs that come with them pre-installed.
If you’re unhappy with Windows 10 and would prefer to go back to Windows 8.1 or 7, or if you missed your chance to get the free upgrade for an old machine, you’ll have to look for alternatives. Options for the budget-conscious are limited, but there are a few possibilities. Let’s look at them in order.
How Much Does Windows Normally Cost?
Before we talk discounts, let’s talk MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price). How much did Windows cost originally at a full retail price?
Windows 7 was released in October 2009. The original retail price for Windows 7 was $199.99 for Home Premium and $299.99 for the Professional edition. These prices came down to $119.99 and $199.99, respectively, if you upgraded from Windows Vista to Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional. This made the Windows 7 Home Premium edition significantly cheaper than its Windows Vista predecessor.
With the release of Windows 8 in October 2012, Microsoft simplified the pricing. The full retail version was offered for the same price as the upgrade. According to Microsoft, a standard copy of Windows 8.1 was worth $119.99. If you wanted Windows 8.1 Pro you had to hand over an astounding $199.99. Yes, you could get a Chromebook for less.
These prices didn’t entice people to upgrade. Meanwhile, PC sales were decreasing and so Windows 8 never reached the same market share that Windows XP and Windows 7 achieved.
Between July 2015 and August 2016, you could get Windows 10 for free, if you upgraded from Windows 7 or 8.1. This helped Windows 10 gain a significant market share.
Now, Windows 10 comes with a price tag. Initially, you had to pay the same price you had to pay for Windows 8.1. Meanwhile, Microsoft slightly increased the price tag of Windows 10 Home to $130, while Windows Professional will still set you back $199.99.
But what can you do if you need Windows and don’t want to pay that much? Here are your options.
How to Get Windows 10 for Free in 2018
1. Get a Discount From Microsoft
If you are a student, parent of a student, or faculty member in the US, Microsoft will give you a 10% discount on Windows 10. Your school must be listed in Microsoft’s database or you need to call Microsoft to verify your eligibility.
You might want to hold off, though, because there’s another option that’s free.
2. Get It Free Through Microsoft Imagine
Microsoft Imagine Premium, formerly known as DreamSpark Premium, is a subscription service. It allows schools to provide Microsoft’s software to students and faculty for free.
You can sign up on Microsoft’s website to get instant access to a variety of Microsoft products. As with the student edition of Windows 10, you’ll have to verify your student identity. Search the site for your school’s WebStore to see whether you can get additional Microsoft products for free through your school, such as Windows 10.
3. Download Windows 10 From a Genuine Windows 7/8/8.1 PC
When the free Windows 10 upgrade expired, we reported that Microsoft had left open a backdoor. Windows 7 and 8.1 users who are using assistive technologies, like the magnifier, narrator, or closed captions found in the Ease of Access menu, could still upgrade to Windows 10 for free. Meanwhile, Microsoft has closed this loophole.
The only other way to upgrade to Windows 10 for free now (until Microsoft removes this loophole too), is to use a PC with a genuinely licensed and activated copy of Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 to download Windows 10.
When you run the Windows 10 Media Creation tool, you can either create installation media for another PC or — if you’re running it on the machine you want to upgrade already—select upgrade this PC now.
ZDNet writes that you will not be asked for the actual product key.
4. Find Deep Discount Deals
The prices listed above are those set by Microsoft. However, all Windows versions can be found for less at other retailers. Amazon.com and Newegg.com frequently sell the full edition of Windows 10—albeit the Original Equipment Manufacturer version—for around $100.
That’s not bad, but it’s still a lot of money. Retailers sometimes offer better deals on product key cards. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to find them for Windows 7 or 8.1 because the retail sale of these Windows versions ended in 2015. You might, however, find sales for Windows 10.
If you only receive the product key and no disk, you can either purchase a repair/recovery drive or download the respective Windows version from Microsoft.
You’ll also want to know how to install Windows from a USB drive.
5. Negotiate Volume Licensing
Microsoft doesn’t sell Windows to large organizations the same way it sells to individuals. Instead, it uses “volume licensing” which involves bulk distribution of Enterprise Edition keys for a set price that’s often much lower than a normal installation. You can buy copies under a volume deal for organizations as small as 5 computers, but you have to call into Microsoft’s volume licensing center to get the deal. The Microsoft License Advisor tool can be used to generate a quote without calling the hotline.
This won’t work for a lot of people, but Microsoft’s low minimum organization size means most small businesses can qualify. There are also deals for governments, charities, and non-profits. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that your employer already has a volume license deal. Check with the IT department to see if they offer discounts on Windows and other Microsoft programs to employees.
6. Download Windows Enterprise Evaluation
Microsoft offers free evaluation copies of Windows Enterprise for businesses seeking to switch to Windows or upgrade older machines. Currently, evaluation licenses are available for Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and Windows 10. These versions can be obtained with nothing more than a Microsoft account.
The catch? Each license is only valid for 90 days. When the evaluation period expires, your computer will begin to shut down automatically every hour. This isn’t a long-term solution, but it’s a good option if you’re saving money to buy the full version or only need Windows for a few months.
7. Buy Used Keys or Computers
You can find deals on used keys in the usual places like Craigslist or eBay, but proceed with caution. Many cut-rate keys are actually from volume licensing deals and re-sold illegally. People with access to these free or low-cost sources for Windows keys flip them for profit. That’s against the license agreement. Microsoft does not aggressively patrol its licenses, but buying a key from an illegal reseller means you run the risk of having your Windows installation deactivated without notice.
If you do buy from an individual, and you want to stay legit, carefully evaluate your purchase. A sealed, boxed copy is your best bet because it guarantees the key hasn’t already been used. Product key cards are also legitimate, but there’s no way to verify the key hasn’t already been used. Only buy those from a business or person your trust.
Note that repair drives or disks, like the one shown above, don’t come with a Windows license.
There’s No Free Lunch for Windows
Windows remains expensive. The only way to significantly lower the price is if you qualify for a specific plan or discount. For most people, the least expensive option will be a Windows 10 product key from an online retailer, but that could still set you back $100.
Alternatively, transfer an old Windows 7 or 8.1 installation to your current machine, then upgrade to Windows 10 for free as described above. Note that the same won’t work for Windows 10, meaning you can’t buy a cheap computer and transfer the installation. Your Windows 10 license is tied to the hardware, rather than to a product key.