The cheapest way to get a new copy of Windows 10
Windows 10 is a free upgrade but only if you're running one of the newer versions of Windows already. For everyone else, what's the cheapest way to get on board?
Who qualifies for a free version of Windows 10?
There's no price point cheaper than free, and for the first time, Microsoft's offering an operating system for the grand price of nothing. Previously it was possible to run early release code for Windows for nothing as part of Microsoft's Insider program, but those were operating systems with inbuilt expiry dates. The version of Windows 10 that Microsoft is offering to eligible consumers and businesses will be free of charge for the life of the hardware on which it is run.
That's an important caveat. Microsoft isn't throwing Windows 10 out for free for anyone and everyone, and it's not the case that if you qualify right now for "free" Windows 10 that you always will do so. The licence is applied directly to the hardware that you install Windows 10 onto. If the motherboard dies down the track, your licence expires with it, although Microsoft does allow for some smaller scale hardware changes on a machine without invalidating the operating system.
In order to qualify, you'll need to be running a genuine and eligible version of Windows. If you're running Windows 7 Starter, Windows 7 Home, Windows 7 Premium or Windows 8.1, you're eligible to upgrade for free to Windows 10 Home. If you're running Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Ultimate, Windows 8.1 Pro or Windows 8.1 Pro For Students, you're eligible to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro.
In either scenario, you have to reserve an upgrade through the Get Windows 10 App before a year has passed after the launch of Windows 10. So in other words, any time up until the 29th of July 2016, after which Microsoft will presumably stop offering it for free.
How long will I have to wait?
While Windows 10 officially "launches" on the July 29, it's something of a soft launch, with Microsoft being slightly evasive about exact timeframes for delivery. The company has stated that it'll roll out Windows 10 first to members of its "Windows Insiders" program. It then plans to roll out the update to anyone who's requested it will receive it as part of a staggered rollout. When your system is eligible for the upgrade, you should receive notification from Microsoft that your turn in the queue is up.
How much will I have to pay if I don't qualify?
Microsoft is selling Windows 10 for those with non-qualifying hardware, as well as anyone building a PC from scratch in either straight download form or through retailers on USB drives.
The download price schedule for Windows 10 is as follows: $179 for Home, or $299 for Pro. (We'll add USB pricing when it's announced.)
Is it worth buying a cheap device or licence to score a Windows 8.1 licence to get the upgrade?
Windows 8.1 costs $149 for a single user licence, while Windows 8.1 Pro costs $259. While it's a bit of a runaround, those prices being slightly cheaper mean that you could buy Windows 8, install and verify it and therefore get access to Windows 10 under Microsoft's free scheme. Bear in mind that you'd have to go through the process of a full Windows 8 install prior to upgrading to Windows 10, and the licence would apply to that hardware only.
There are tablets and laptops that sell for prices not that much greater than a Windows licence, and if they're on sale right now, they're almost bound to be qualifying Windows 7 or Windows 8 machines presuming they meet the minimum requirements. The key requirement that may trip some systems up will be the need for a display resolution of 1024x600 pixels; if your Windows tablet has a lower resolution than that it's not likely to run properly.
Cheap tablets and laptops should qualify for the upgrade, but it's worth considering the fact that the upgrade licence applies to that hardware only. You can't buy a cheap Windows Tablet, qualify for the upgrade and then apply the upgrade to your more powerful desktop or laptop machine.
There's also the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) version of Windows 8.1, which typically sells a little cheaper than the straight download version, usually around $20 cheaper. The catch there is that it's only meant to be sold with new computer systems or for building a new system, which typically means you should also be buying new hardware -- motherboard, hard drive and so on -- in order to qualify for the OEM version. Given the very slight pricing difference, unless you genuinely are building a new desktop PC, it doesn't entirely seem worth it.