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Windows 10 download: You can still get Microsoft's operating system free, before Windows 11 arrives

CNET logo CNET 9/9/2021 Alison DeNisco Rayome
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If you've been holding out on upgrading to Windows 10, now is the time. Microsoft ended support for Windows 7 more than a year ago, and it wants holdouts to upgrade to Windows 10 to keep devices running securely and smoothly -- particularly before Windows 11 starts rolling out this October. Windows 11 will only be available as a free upgrade for Windows 10 users. Anyone on older operating systems will have to pay for the upgrade. (Here's how you'll download Windows 11 when it's available and how to check if your computer will be compatible with the new operating system. Plus, here's everything you need to know about transitioning from Windows 10 to Windows 11.) 

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If you have an older PC or laptop still running Windows 7, you can buy Windows 10 Home on Microsoft's website for $139 (£120, AU$225). But you don't necessarily have to shell out the cash: A free upgrade offer from Microsoft that technically ended in 2016 still works for many people. With the potential new version of Windows right around the corner, now may be a good time to make sure you're on the latest version to make any future updates easier. 

When Windows 10 was first released in July 2015, Microsoft offered an unprecedented free upgrade offer for Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 users, good through July 2016. But in 2017, Ed Bott of CNET's sister site ZDNet reported that the free upgrade tool was still functional. I tried it out in November 2019 and was able to upgrade a 2014 Dell OptiPlex 9020 desktop from Windows 7 Pro to Windows 10 Pro. As of August 2021, readers are still emailing me and commenting below, saying that it's worked for them as well.

Read moreWindows 10 tips: How to take screenshots, find the secret Start menu and more

Upgrading your operating system is about more than just new features. Windows 7 users who don't upgrade to the new version will no longer be able to get Microsoft's security updates or fixes, or technical support for any issues, leaving your computer at greater risk from viruses and malware. While Windows 10 users have experienced a number of bugs over the years, upgrading remains the best option for keeping your computer safe, analysts say. And more people seem to be making the move: Windows 10 now has more than 1.3 billion active users worldwide, Microsoft reported in May. (Just note that, with Windows 11 is coming, support for Windows 10 will end in 2025.)

How to download Windows 10 for free

Here's how to get Windows 10 for free, if you're currently running a licensed and activated copy of Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 Home or Pro: 

1. Go to the Download Windows 10 website

2. Under Create Windows 10 installation media, click Download tool now and Run

3. Choose Upgrade this PC now, assuming this is the only PC you're upgrading. (If you're upgrading a different machine, choose Create installation media for another PC, and save the installation files.)

4. Follow the prompts. 

5. When the upgrade is complete, go to Settings Update & Security > Activation, and you should see a digital license for Windows 10. 

a close up of a light: Microsoft is encouraging Windows 7 users to upgrade to Windows 10 now support for the former has ended. Stephen Shankland/CNET © Provided by CNET Microsoft is encouraging Windows 7 users to upgrade to Windows 10 now support for the former has ended. Stephen Shankland/CNET

It should be noted that if you have a Windows 7 or 8 Home license, you can only update to Windows 10 Home, while Windows 7 or 8 Pro can only be updated to Windows 10 Pro. (The upgrade is not available for Windows Enterprise. Other users may experience blocks as well, depending on your machine.) This upgrade using the media creation tool isn't meant for the general consumer, but it works for many nonetheless. 

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To get the best Windows 10 experience and take advantage of features like passwordless sign-on through Windows Hello, you'll want to purchase a new Windows 10 PC (or one released after July 2015) with all the hardware upgrades. If you're a student or university faculty member, you may also be able to download Windows 10 for free (search for your school's software offerings here).

For more, check out the best antivirus protection of 2021 for Windows 10six security changes all Windows 10 users need to make and all of the big differences between Windows 10 and Windows 11. You can also get Microsoft Office online free, too.

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