Want Windows 7 back? Make sure you know your downgrade rights

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You want your new PC to run an older Windows version. You're not the only one. Here's the best way to make it happen.

For as long as I can remember, businesses have lagged well behind consumers in adoption of the latest Windows versions. If your business runs on Windows 7, you probably have a long list of practical reasons why you want to stick with that familiar operating system and avoid Windows 8, at least for now.

You're not alone. You're also not asking for anything out of the ordinary. Microsoft's licensing rules for business editions of Windows include several types of "downgrade rights," which are fully supported ways for you to purchase a new PC with a Windows 8 license and replace the pre-installed operating system with the older version you want to use.

There's nothing new about Windows downgrade rights, which have been a part of Microsoft's license agreement for nearly two decades. If you know the rules, you can end up with the exact configuration you want. If you make a wrong step, you will spend more than you need to -- or risk deploying an unlicensed copy of Windows, which can cost your business dearly if you are audited.

The details I describe here will guide you to the smartest, most economical downgrade path. Table A summarizes your downgrade options. The discussion that follows the table explains those options in more detail.

Table A

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Table A

What are OEM downgrade rights?

There are only two ways for you or your business to purchase a Windows license for a new PC:

  • Buy a new PC with Windows pre-installed by the computer or device manufacturer. Your purchase includes an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) license. The license terms, which vary depending on the Windows edition you purchase, include an agreement between you (or your business) as an end user and a second agreement between you and the OEM.
  • Buy Windows as packaged software or directly from Microsoft. With this type of purchase, you acquire a retail license (sometimes referred to as a full packaged product, or FPP license). The license agreement is between you, the PC buyer, and Microsoft.

If you acquire a Windows 8 Pro OEM license, you'll find downgrade rights delineated in the Q&A section at the beginning of the license agreement, as shown here:

"Can I downgrade the software? Instead of using the Windows 8 Pro software, you may use one of the following earlier versions: Windows 7 Professional or Windows Vista Business.

This agreement applies to your use of the earlier versions. If the earlier version includes different components, any terms for those components in the agreement that come with the earlier version apply to your use of such components. Neither the manufacturer or installer, nor Microsoft, is obligated to supply earlier versions to you. You must obtain the earlier version separately. At any time, you may replace an earlier version with Windows 8 Pro."

Note that downgrade rights are not included with any retail Windows license, nor are they included with the standard (not Pro) edition of Windows 8. You must purchase a Windows 8 Pro license with a new PC for downgrade rights to be available.

What downgrade rights are available with Volume License purchases?

OEM downgrade rights allow you to replace the operating system version you purchased with one of the two previous versions of Windows. For Windows 8 Pro, that means Windows 7 Professional or Windows Vista Business.

You get a more expansive set of rights if you have a Volume License (VL) agreement. If you purchase a Windows 8 Pro upgrade as part of that agreement, you can install any previous version of Windows on it. If you purchase a Windows 8 Enterprise upgrade using your VL agreement, you can install the corresponding Enterprise edition of Windows 7 or Windows Vista.

Note that Windows licenses you purchase through the Volume License program are upgrades only. (And yes, it is a bit surreal to consider that purchasing a Windows 8 upgrade gives you Windows 7 downgrade rights.) You must have a license for a "qualifying operating system" for the PC you plan to upgrade using a VL purchase. In most cases, this is an OEM license for a business edition of Windows, such as Windows 8 Pro, Windows 7 Professional, Windows Vista Business, or Windows XP Professional. Consumer versions of Windows, such as Windows 8 or Windows 7 Home Premium, do not qualify for VL upgrades.

What's the best way to exercise downgrade rights?

The language in the license agreement I quoted earlier makes it clear: Downgrade rights give you the legal right to install an earlier operating system version. But you're on your own when it comes to actually performing the replacement.

By far the easiest (and smartest) way to get Windows 7 on a new PC is to let the OEM do it. Every large OEM has specific models that include a Windows 8 Pro license with Windows 7 preinstalled. Figure A shows an example of a Dell system offered with this configuration.

Figure A

Figure A

This option offers the best of both worlds: You get Windows 7 installed by the manufacturer, with all the necessary drivers and utilities for the hardware included. And you have the license and media that allow you to upgrade to Windows 8.1 later without having to pay anything extra.

What if you find a PC that you like, but the manufacturer doesn't offer it in a downgraded version? In that case, you'll have to install Windows 7 Pro yourself and then use the telephone option to activate it.

If you're a Volume License customer, you can download the Windows installation media from the Volume License Service Center or order physical copies.

If you have valid Windows 7 Professional installation disks from another source, you can use those as well.

The biggest headache comes when you try to activate Windows 7. Your new PC with Windows 8 Pro doesn't include a product key for Windows 7 (and a Windows 8 key won't work). In this situation, you need to run Windows 7 Setup without entering a product key. After installation is complete and you confirm that the installation is working properly, open the Activation window and choose the option to activate over the phone.

Explain to the activation operator that you are exercising downgrade rights to install Windows 7 Professional on a PC with a Windows 8 Pro license. The operator will provide you with a one-time-use code that allows you to activate the installation. This code is not a full product key and you will not be able to use it for another activation.

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