FAQ: How to get Windows 8 now ... legally

Beat the hoi polloi by installing the new OS today

Starting yesterday, Microsoft began releasing the final code of Windows 8 to developers, IT professionals and businesses that license the company's products in volume.

That's all well and good for them, but how can you get your hands on the new operating system before it officially launches Oct. 26?

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We spell out two ways -- one free, one not -- that you can use right now to try out the revamped OS.

Is there a way to get Windows 8 RTM for free? Yes, there is, but it's not a use-forever copy. Microsoft offers a limited-time trial of Windows 8 Enterprise -- the version aimed at, surprise, enterprises -- that anyone can download free-of-charge.

Although Microsoft says that the evaluation copy is "intended for developers building Windows 8 apps and IT professionals interested in trying Windows 8 Enterprise on behalf of their organization," it's not blocking others from grabbing the .iso, or disk image, file.

To download the 90-day trial -- it's available in 32- and 64-bit versions -- start at this Microsoft website.

What's the catch? The eval runs for only 90 days. When your time is up, Windows 8 drops into the same punitive mode that Microsoft uses for counterfeit copies of its operating systems. The desktop background fades to a permanent black, you'll see constant on-screen messages that the operating system is not genuine, and the machine, whether physical or virtual -- shuts down every hour.

In other words, it's completely useless.

On the bright side, if you download and install the trial today, you can use it through Nov. 13, 2012, long enough to get a good feel for the OS, or how it really runs on older hardware, such as a Windows XP or Vista PC, like Microsoft claims.

Can I upgrade the trial version later? No, you can't.

Microsoft makes it clear that the 90-day evaluation is a dead end. "It is not possible to upgrade the evaluation to a licensed working version of Windows 8," the company says on the website that details the trial. "A clean installation is required."

Doesn't sound like that's for me. What else you got? If you can spring for $199, you can purchase a one-year membership to TechNet's lowest-priced subscription plan, which lets you download the real deal, not a 90-day wonder.

The TechNet Standard plan -- at $199, the cheaper of the two available direct from Microsoft -- gives you access to Windows 8 Pro only. As a Standard subscriber, you get just two product keys for Windows 8 Pro. (Pay $349 and you also have access to Windows 8 Enterprise, which uses a single MAK-style key that as the acronym for "Multiple Activation Key," can be used several times to activate copies.)

Each TechNet Standard product key is good for one activation, although you can use the normal Microsoft channels -- online and telephone -- to reactivate a copy on the same machine you installed it on originally.

Is there a catch with TechNet, too? Of course ... what fun would it be if there wasn't?

Technically, you're not allowed to use the software you obtain via a TechNet subscription if you let it lapse. If your sub ends, "You must stop using the software ... and you must destroy all copies of the software in your possession," Microsoft says in the subscription agreement.

Other licensing language spells out additional legal restrictions.

"You may not use it in a live operating environment, a staging or production environment, or with data that has not been sufficiently backed up," reads a help document on the TechNet site. "You may not use the evaluation software for software development or in an application development environment."

On the plus side, a TechNet Standard subscription also lets you download and install other Microsoft operating systems and programs, including Windows 7, Office 2010, Office for Mac 2011 Home and Business, and when it ships, Office 2013. The two-keys-each rule applies for those as well.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "FAQ: How to get Windows 8 now ... legally" was originally published by Computerworld.

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