Windows 7: How to Get the Release Candidate
On Tuesday, Microsoft will post Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) for the general public.
The milestone is important, since it's the one-and-only release candidate Microsoft will issue for Windows 7, making it the last public stop on the operating system's brief tour before it ships.
And when will that be? Microsoft's not saying, though at least one executive recently broke with past practice and admitted it's possible that Windows 7 would be out in time for the holidays. We're betting it shows up sometime between Aug. 28 and Sept. 20, dates based on the past pace from RC to final for Windows XP and Vista.
Windows 7 RC is also an important-to-get preview, because --while it's not final code -- you'll be able to use it until June 2010, more than a year away. Microsoft's largess has never been larger.
Nor, apparently, have its ambitions been greater, since Windows 7 must simultaneously pry people away from Windows XP while masking the odor left behind by Vista.
Has Microsoft pulled it off? Our reviewer said "RC1 is stable enough and fast enough that it's well worth the download," which, though not a ringing endorsement, is encouraging.
So you'll want to grab a copy and try it out, decide whether you'll -- finally -- ditch XP or give up on Vista. But where can you get it, how do you install it, what do you need to run it and can you upgrade from the beta or from Vista or from XP?
Questions, there are always questions. And we have the answers, most of them anyway. Read our FAQ.
Windows 7 FAQ
When can I download the RC? That's easy: Tuesday, May 5. Microsoft has declined to say exactly when it will throw the switch that day, but back in January, it originally pegged the beta's start time as noon, Pacific. (And we all know how well that worked out.)
Of course, if you subscribe to Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) or TechNet, you've been able to grab it since last Thursday afternoon (after the now seemingly-inevitable snafu on Microsoft's end).
Where do I get it? The public download will be posted to the Windows 7 site, Microsoft said.
Windows 7 RC will be available in both 32- and 64-bit editions.
Is Microsoft limiting the release candidate, like it tried to do with the beta? No. "There is no limit to the total number of downloads for Windows 7 RC," a company spokeswoman confirmed.
That's a change from the beta, or at least the plan for the beta, when Microsoft originally said it would turn off the spigot after 2.5 million product keys had been issued. But when eager users rushed the servers on opening day, bringing down the whole download plan, Microsoft backed off the 2.5-million mark and eventually let people download the public beta for one month after the restart. Even Microsoft learns from its mistakes, it seems, because not only will it not restrict the number of downloads, but it will make the RC available for nearly three times as long, until the end of July.
Speaking of the beta download debacle, what's the chance that the RC download process will go smoothly? Good question. Too bad we don't have an answer.
Last week's debut of Windows 7 RC on MSDN and TechNet, however, may be a clue. And it's not comforting. Microsoft had all kinds of trouble serving up Windows 7 RC to MSDN and TechNet subscribers last Thursday, with the download sites for both services eventually going dark. After several hours, Microsoft got the snafu untangled and put both sites' download sections back online. What do I need to install the release candidate? Microsoft has set the minimum requirements for the RC as a 1-GHz or faster processor; 1GB of memory; 16GB of free hard drive space for 32-bit, 20GB for 64-bit; and graphics that supports DirectX 9 with a Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) 1.0 or higher driver.
WDDM, which debuted in Vista, was a marked change from the driver standard for the older Windows XP. The new driver model may be best known for the part it played in the still-alive "Vista Capable" lawsuit, in which consumers have accused Microsoft of duping them into purchasing XP machines that the company knew would not be able to run WDDM drivers.
If you're planning on also trying out the new "XP Mode" virtualization add-on, which will be released May 5 in beta, you'll need 2GB of system memory and an additional 15GB of disk space.
What else? You'll also need a recordable DVD drive to burn the file you download, which comes as a disk image, or .iso file, to a DVD, which you'll then use as the installation disc.
If you're installing Windows 7 RC to a virtual machine, using, say, VMware's Fusion on a Mac, you can skip the DVD burning step and install directly from the .iso file. VMware posted step-by-step instructions in January for the beta; they're valid for the RC, too.
How big is the download? The 32-bit version weighs in at 2.47GB, while the 64-bit tips the scales at 3.2GB. Both numbers are slightly higher than the corresponding beta. The XP Mode add-on is another 450MB or so.
Do I need a product activation key? How about if I already have one from the beta Yes, and according to Microsoft, yes again.
Microsoft will make keys for the RC available through the same mechanism it used for the beta, in other words, before you start the download, you'll be asked to sign in using a Microsoft Live ID and given a key.
But while Microsoft said that keys obtained for the beta won't work with the RC, others have countered that, in their experience, they do. Noted Windows blogger Ed Bott, for instance, has said that product keys obtained for the earlier beta "work just fine" with the RC.
Can I upgrade from the Windows 7 beta? You can, although Microsoft doesn't want you to. As is, the RC blocks installation when it recognizes that the PC is running Windows 7 beta. Microsoft did this, it said back in early April, because it wants users to "experience real-world setup and provide us real-world telemetry."
Instead, Microsoft told users to either do a clean install -- wiping out their copy of Windows 7 beta, all the applications they'd added and all the files those applications had generated -- or revert back to Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), which they had presumably been running before they upgraded to the beta, then install RC.
To get around the block, copy the contents of the Windows 7 RC DVD to a local folder -- a bootable USB drive works, as does any root-level folder on the machine running the beta -- then on that drive or in that folder, open the "Sources" folder. Open the "cversion.ini" file with Notepad, and change the value of "MinClient" to "7000." Save the file and run Setup.
Microsoft walks you through the steps here.
Can I upgrade from Vista? Yes, but you can only do an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 RC from Vista SP1 or SP2, the latter still in RC form itself.
What edition of Windows 7 is the release candidate? The RC is the Ultimate edition of Windows 7, the most expensive of the line.
What languages are supported? Microsoft has limited the RC to English, French, German, Japanese and Spanish. Arabic and Hindi, which were available in January's beta (though Hindi only in 32-bit) were dropped in favor of French and Spanish.
Can I upgrade from Windows XP? Nope.
Although Microsoft will sell Windows 7 "upgrades" to XP users, it's just a version term for them, allowing them to buy the new OS at a lower price. When Windows 7 goes final, XP users will have to do a "clean install" that erases the contents of the drive; the same goes for the RC.
To transfer files and settings from XP to the new Windows 7, use the Easy Transfer utility included with Windows 7 RC. After you've burned the downloaded .iso file to a DVD, insert it in the XP machine's drive and copy Easy Transfer to the PC. When you run it, Easy Transfer will copy files and settings to an external device -- a USB flash drive comes in handy here -- which you can then copy to the PC after you've done the Windows 7 RC clean install.
Does Microsoft provide support for Windows 7 RC? Microsoft doesn't do technical support for pre-release software, so your only support option as an RC freeloader is online, in the user-to-user forums.
When does the release candidate expire? Microsoft pushed out the expiration date for RC to June 1, 2010, nearly 13 months from its debut, significantly longer than the "free" time frame the company gave users for Vista.
On that date, the release candidate will stop working, but you'll get plenty of advance notice. According to Microsoft, Windows 7 RC will start automatically shutting down at two-hour intervals beginning March 1, 2010.
By the way, if you stick with the beta, remember that it expires much sooner, on Aug. 1, 2009, with bi-hourly shutdowns starting July 1. In each case, Windows 7 will remind you two weeks before the shutdowns begin that the beta or release candidate expiration process is about to start.