Free copies of Windows? What is the catch? Yes there is a catch of course and what Microsoft is doing is giving away virtual machines.
Software such as VirtualBox, VMware and others, are able to run an operating system in a window on the desktop or even full screen. A virtual machine is a bit like an emulator that lets you run Gameboy, Comodore 64, Atari and other devices on your computer.
In the case of a virtual machine, the hardware emulated is a PC and you can run any version of Windows (or Linux, but that is a different story). It is in a window on the desktop, but you can make it full screen so it looks and works like the real thing.
So why is Microsoft giving away Windows? The answer is for testing purposes. There are many different versions of Internet Explorer and in order for website developers to test their sites and make sure they work for everyone, they can fire up a virtual machine like on Windows 7 and check whether Internet Explorer 8, 9 and 10 work, or Internet Explorer 6 and 8 on XP.
You don’t have to run Internet Explorer and these are fully working versions of Windows, so you can install and run any software. Here is a step by step guide showing how to download and install any version of Windows.
1 Select a virtual machine
Open a web browser and go to http://dev.modern.ie/tools/vms/windows/. Select a virtual machine such as IE8 on XP shown here. (Update: XP, Vista, Win 8 have been removed. There's just Win 7, Win 8.1 and Win 10 now.)
2 Select the platform
3 Unzip the download
The file is downloaded as a zip file and it is big! Windows XP is 1GB and Windows 10 is around 5GB. Ideally you need a fast internet connection to download them. When the download is complete, right click the zip file and select Extract All. This extracts the contents and saves it to a folder of the same name in the same location.
4 Import the virtual machine
Start VirtualBox, go to the File menu and select Import Appliance. This is how ready-made virtual machines downloaded from the internet are added to the software.
5 Select the file
Browse the disk and select the file that was extracted from the downloaded zip file.
6 Customise the settings
The virtual machine is ready to use, but it comes preconfigured with the minimum specification. Select the virtual machine and click the Settings button. XP, used in this example, is configured to use 512MB of RAM, but increasing this to 1024MB (1GB) enables it to run better. Similarly, you can increase the video memory in the Display section too. You can tweak some more, but that is enough to get you started.
7 Start the virtual machine
Select the virtual machine and click the Start button. The selected version of Windows then runs in a window on the desktop.
There is another catch and this is that these versions of Windows are time-limited. You basically get the trial version and they run for up to 90 days and then stop working. However, you can delete the virtual machine and import a fresh copy from the downloaded file and get another 90 days use, repeating this forever. You will lose any settings or software you installed into the copy of Windows, but as it is used only for test purposes, it does not matter.