The truth about the "free" Windows 7 upgrades
Microsoft launched its Windows 7 Upgrade Option on 26 June to great fanfare: "Get Windows 7 for free" screamed the headlines, with the promise that all participating laptop and PC makers would provide a voucher that you could redeem for Windows 7.
But, as we move closer to the launch of Windows 7 in a month's time, it's become clear you could pay up to £30 for the privilege. Just to rub salt into the wounds, that's as much as it costs for students to buy Windows 7 outright.
There are also a number of catches you should be aware of, although for the thousands of people who've bought a new laptop or PC since late June this warning will come too late.
What's in the box?
I surveyed 11 different manufacturers to find out exactly what their customers would receive when they redeemed the voucher. And it's obvious that different companies handle this in very different ways.
HP, Lenovo, Sony and Toshiba offer, in my view, the best bundle. Not only will you receive the official Microsoft Windows 7 disc, you'll also receive a disc that includes all the drivers required for your PC or laptop (Sony also includes updates for the software it bundles with its laptops, such as WinDVD).
British PC makers Chillblast, Mesh and PC Specialist don't include any specific drivers in the package, but you do get the official Microsoft Windows disc.
This is important as it can be used on any computer, giving greater flexibility. Compare that to Advent, Asus and Dell, all of which provide a single disc that can only be used on their systems.
This should ensure a smooth upgrade, as all the necessary drivers for your system will be on the disc too, but it does mean you can't use that disc on any other system (naturally, Microsoft and partners would argue that you shouldn't need to).
Disappointingly, Acer couldn't confirm what its customers would receive at the time of going to press, but its UK arm assures me that it's chasing the information. I'll update this blog if and when I receive it.
What else do you get?
Another question mark hangs over the amount of support you'll receive. Some companies - including Advent (PC World) and Toshiba - offer a dedicated help line, but others will rely on their existing resources. I wouldn't want to phone up with an urgent query in late October and early November.
It's also worth noting that Toshiba offers multi-language support, and its disc is sent via registered mail. Asus has also confirmed it will be sending out the upgrade pack via registered mail, while Dell will use UPS couriers.
All of which means there should be no "lost in the post" calls. Advent and Sony will both be sending their upgrade packs out in the normal mail.
Chillblast, Mesh and PC Specialist have all signed up to Microsoft's direct upgrade scheme, which means the upgrade pack will be sent direct from a Microsoft-approved partner. As yet, Microsoft hasn't confirmed whether this means normal post or a registered service.
Whichever company you buy from, you should also receive a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) and a Getting Started guide to help you install the Windows 7 ugprade.
The big question: how much?
There is an extraordinary variety of prices to be paid for your "free" upgrade. In fact, only Mesh and Chillblast offer the scheme to their customers for free, with almost all the big vendors - Sony, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba - asking you to pay £20 or more. (Note that Lenovo officially states the price will be around £25, but when I went through its procedure the cost was estimated at £16.85.)
Also beware of hidden prices. The free voucher upgrade really isn't a free voucher at all, as manufacturers are actually charged a higher fee for Windows Vista with an upgrade voucher than without.
"Basically, since June 26th 2009 Microsoft has been selling two different SKUs through distribution for each version of Vista - Home Premium (32- and 64-bit), Business (32- and 64-bit), Ultimate (32- and 64-bit). One SKU includes the Upgrade Voucher and one doesn't, the SKU with the Upgrade Voucher is £10.00 extra as seen in the image below," wrote PC Specialist's John Medley in an email, pasting the screenshot you see here.
For Chillblast PCs, for instance, the voucher is included in the price with recently specified PCs. If you try and order the voucher with a PC that was specified by Chillblast before 26 June, however, then you'll need to pay an extra £15.
The Microsoft line
So why is there such discrepancy over all the different schemes? I put that question to Laurence Painell, Windows OEM & WGA Product Manager.
"We give manufacturers complete control over the program. Obviously they have varying levels of cost, whether it be in support, procurement or distribution costs associated with the nature of the product they're shipping and as such it really is their decision as to how much they charge their customers and the process they go through.
"We obviously have guidance on how the fulfilment end happens, on how people redeem vouchers and how the whole process works, but typically from a standpoint of how they do things, all we ask is that they have a website that clearly articulates how the customer when they come to redeem the vouchers does that, and we have links to that off our website.
"Apart from that it's entirely up to them how they fulfil it and how they support it and how much they charge. Our recommendation to consumers is very much to check with the retailer or the manufacturer at the time of purchase to understand exactly what the implications of the upgrade programme are."
What happens next?
Whether you've already bought a computer that came with a "free" voucher or you're just about to buy, I recommend you take a few minutes to visit the relevant website for your chosen manufacturer (just click on the name below; note that Mesh and Chillblast will simply take you to the Microsoft landing page).
Also note that the end date for registering your voucher is 31 January 2010, with most manufacturers only then giving until mid-February to actually redeem it.