You blew it. For a whole year, you could have gotten the most advanced desktop operating system on the planet absolutely free, but now, thanks to your procrastination, you’ll have to pay for Windows 10. And (to rub salt in the wound) you’ll also be missing out on a major upgrade, known as Anniversary Update, which launches on August 2. Once you do update to Windows 10, however, all future OS updates are free, and even when you reinstall on the same hardware, you won’t need to enter a license key.
If you decide you actually do want faster startup, Cortana, Windows Hello secure sign-in, Action Center notifications, the fastest browser on all benchmarks (Microsoft Edge) and touch and pen input support, along with lots of other great new features, you’ll have to pay $119.99 for the Home edition and $199.99 for Pro.
To get started, point your Web browser to microsoft.com/windows. You can either choose to download the installation software or have a USB thumb drive sent to you. If you are a system builder or a Mac user wanting to install Windows using Boot Camp, the Windows 10 USB installer makes more sense. You can get it via the online Microsoft Store or at an actual Microsoft Store if you live near one and don’t want to wait for shipping. The price is the same either way. You can pay with credit card or PayPal.
Before installing the new operating system, check if your PC can run Windows 10, but chance are it can: The system requirements are not extremely demanding.
Install the Operating System
Before running the installer, what do you do whenever you update an operating system? That’s right, you back up your files. Remember, a new operating system is a non-trivial upgrade, and even though Windows 10 has been tested on millions of PCs already, there’s a chance that your particular combination of hardware, drivers, and software could trip up the new OS.
With that done, simply run the setup. You’ll see this message box telling you that the setup is preparing itself:
The setup program downloads updates and restarts itself. Next you OK the license terms, and finally it’s ready to start the actual upgrade:
In a very welcome change from Windows 8.x, the Windows 10 upgrader keeps your installed software in place, and unless it’s very old, for example it uses 16-bit code, the software should run. If you have problems, you can right-click on the program file and choose “Troubleshoot compatibility.” If you want a fresh start and don’t want to keep programs or data files, you can make that choice in this screen during the setup process:
Here’s what you’ll see during the first part of the installation:
I say the first part, because once that part’s done (it took about 12 minutes on my desktop PC with a 120GB Intel SSD), there’s a second set-up phase during which you’ll see a circular percent countdown (pardon the photo quality—there’s no way to do a screen capture at this stage).
You can use the USB thumb drive or DVD method to upgrade, too. This method also works for people who want to create fresh installations rather than upgrading their existing Windows PC. You can either have Microsoft send you a USB stick or create a bootable one with the OS installer. Head to Microsoft’s Windows Download page to get the ISO creation tool. This is the way to switch from 32-bit to 64-bit, if that’s your wish. Anyone using Home can also easily upgrade to Pro in-place, if you find you need Pro capabilties.
Whichever process you use, you’ll be ready to take advantage of the Cortana voice-activated assistant, faster startup, Action Center, the Start menu with live tiles, the new Edge Web browser, modern apps, and much more. The entire process took about 40 minutes on my software-stocked PC, but yours may take as little as 20 minutes or as much as an hour, depending on your configuration.
There is one way to still get Windows 10 without paying: The upgrade is free for those who need to use the operating system’s Assistive Technology. Sight-impaired users can get enlarged screen views with Magnifier or voice control for everything with Narrator; people who have trouble clicking a mouse get tools to make it easier, and more. In fact, the Anniversary Update improves several of these accessibility features. Microsoft hasn’t commented on whether it’s checking whether those who take advantage of this offer are actually using the assistive technologies, but the download page says “If you use assistive technology on Windows, you are eligible for the free upgrade offer.”
Going the Other Way
What if you make the upgrade and you don’t like what you see? Microsoft has another surprise that breaks remarkably from the past: You have a month to go back to your previous operating system version.
But we really doubt you’ll want to make that choice. For the full rundown of what’s new in Microsoft’s latest desktop operating system, read PCMag’s in-depth review of Windows 10.