Windows 7 may be getting a little long in the tooth now, but it’s still an excellent operating system with legions of fans, many of whom aren't ready for Windows 10 or even Windows 8 just yet. Read our Windows 10 review.
As with all software programs, there are ways to get hold of the installation files free, such as through illegal file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay. We won't advocate going down that path, however.
Neither should you be fooled by the suspicious sites that claim to offer a free download for Windows 7 - even if you can get the software for free, you will still need an activation code to use it.
Regardless of what you may have heard, Windows 7 isn't like Windows 10, which is available as a free upgrade until summer 2016. If you’re still unsure about the merits of Windows 10, then it’s worth checking out our Windows 7 Vs Windows 10 comparison review to see whether now might be the time to make the change.
The only legal way to get a completely free copy of Windows 7 is by transferring a licence from another Windows 7 PC for which you didn't pay a penny - perhaps one that's been passed on to you from a friend or relative or one you've picked up from Freecycle, for example. We'll detail this option further below.
Another option we'll look at below is how you can perform a free downgrade from Windows 8 Pro or Windows 10 Pro to Windows 7 Pro.
If you can't get an old Windows 7 PC for free, you can certainly get a copy of the software on the cheap. Windows OEM discs are fine for personal use, and you'll pick them up online for much less than Microsoft charges for the full boxed edition. For example, on eBay you'll pick one up below £25 (these are often bundled with a free broken laptop or PC, most likely because there is a lot of confusion surrounding Microsoft's OEM licence terms).
Why Windows 7 isn’t free
Sure, the OS is old in technology terms, but that doesn’t mean that it’s worthless. Windows has always been a paid product and Windows 7 is no exception, even now when Microsoft no longer sells the software. Up until recently it was possible to download the ISO (an installable digital copy) of Windows 7 from Microsoft for free, but you still needed the Product Key to activate the system. Now this feature has been removed, and the site requires the Product Key before you can even begin the download. Trial versions also offered 30 days at no cost, but even these seem to have fallen by the wayside as the platform ages.
How to get Windows 7 for free: Sites to avoid
Looking around the web you’ll find various places that offer the ISO for free, and some even include Product Keys. As you might have guessed these are most likely not official, legal versions of the software. Admittedly there are people who might not be bothered by the thought of downloading hacked copies of the OS, but just remember that these versions could easily contain clever malware that watches all of your activities and gathers your precious security details for a remote thief. It’s really not worth the risk.
How to get Windows 7 for free: Transferring a licence
One way of technically getting Windows 7 for free on a new PC is to transfer the licence from a previous machine. If you bought a retail copy of Windows 7 in the past, not the OEM versions that come preinstalled on a PC, then you are allowed to install the software on a new machine so long as you remove it from the old one. If you purchased an Upgrade version then you’ll need the product key from your version of Windows XP or Vista as well.
Once you’ve installed Windows 7 on your new PC you need to follow these steps to transfer the licence.
Click Start then right-click on Computer. Select Properties then scroll down and click on Activate Windows Now. This launches a wizard and on the menu you’ll see an option to Use the automated phone system to activate. Select this, then choose your country from the drop down list, click Next, and you’ll be given a phone number that you can ring to confirm your details with Microsoft and activate Windows 7 on the new PC.
How to get Windows 7 for free: Downgrade Windows 8 Pro, downgrade Windows 10 Pro
If you’ve purchased a new PC with a Pro version of Windows installed, often referred to as business versions, then there is a good chance you can downgrade to Windows 7 Pro for free. You will need a disk or ISO for Windows 7 Pro, which as we’ve detailed above might be tricky to easily find, but once you’ve obtained a copy (and you can always use a colleague’s disc if they have one) then follow the same instructions laid out above for activating Windows via the automated phone system, and inform Microsoft that you are exercising your downgrade rights. Of course you’ll want to perform a full backup of data before installing the OS, and we’d also recommend contacting Microsoft first to check that your version of Windows is eligible.
How to get Windows 10 for free
If you have a PC running Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 then the easiest way to grab a free copy of Windows is to simply visit the Microsoft site and upgrade to Windows 10. Where 8 and 8.1 caused many a user confusion and frustration with their touch centric design, Windows 10 is a truly modern version of the platform that feels like the spiritual successor to the evergreen Windows 7. Microsoft announced that the new platform would be free to those who downloaded the OS during the first year of its availability, and as the release date was 29th July 2015 this means it should run until 29th July 2016, so there’s still plenty of time to take advantage of this excellent offer. Windows 7 might not be free, but to be honest we think its big brother is a better system. So if Windows 8 isn’t all you hoped it would be, there is a very attractive alternative out there and it won’t cost you a penny.