How to Get Your Mitts on the Windows 7 Beta

Late Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled the public beta for Windows 7, the follow-on and follow-up to Vista, which from all signs the company is trying to forget as fast as possible.

CEO Steve Ballmer, in a surprisingly subdued keynote -- no real shouting -- made the announcement Wednesday night at the International CES. It wasn't much of a surprise, what with leaks to file-sharing sites and hints posted on Microsoft's own site in recent weeks.

Still, it's a new version of Windows, even if some have dubbed it "Vista, a lot better." Oh, wait, that was Ballmer himself, back in October.

And because it's fresh and shiny, there are plenty of people eager to try it out, wanting to decide for themselves whether Microsoft's hit a home run this time or just smacked another Vista. But where can you get it, how do you install it and what do you need to patch after you have it on your PC?

Questions, everyone has questions. We have some of the answers.

When can I download the beta? Starting Friday, Jan. 9. Microsoft hasn't said exactly when during the day, but in the past it has sometimes opened download gates worldwide at the same time and other times a rolling local time to spread out the load.

If you subscribe to Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) or TechNet, you can grab it today from here .

Where do I get it? The public download will be posted to the Windows 7 site, here, Microsoft said. The beta will also be posted to Microsoft's IT-oriented Springboard Series site, which will add a "Windows 7" tab to the existing Windows XP and Windows Vista tabs already there.

What do I need to install the beta? Microsoft's set the minimum requirements for the beta as a 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory, 16GB of free hard drive space and 128MB of graphics memory on a chipset or card able to support DirectX 9 graphics.

Those hardware requirements, by the way, are virtually identical to what Microsoft now says you have to have to install any version of Vista except for the entry-level Home Basic.

Anything else? Yes, a DVD-ROM drive. In other words, a drive that can burn data to a recordable DVD disc.

You need that because Microsoft's not providing the beta as an executable or installation file, but as a disk image, or .iso file. Once you've downloaded the monster, you must burn the image to a DVD to create the installation disk. That means you need DVD-burning software, such as Nero 9, an US$80 download from Nero AG, or the $100 Roxio Creator 2009 from Sonic Solutions.

There are also plenty of for-free DVD-burning programs out there; Microsoft recommended ImgBurn, which you can download here.

That's it? Nothing else? Last thing, we swear. The Windows 7 beta is actually an upgrade, not a full new install. You need to have a machine running Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) to install the beta.

So if you're still running Windows XP -- which a lot of people are, what with Vista's problems, real or imagined -- you're up a creek sans the proverbial paddle.

Is Microsoft limiting the beta? Yes it is. The company said it will close out the beta after 2.5 million downloads.

Really? So if I'm late to the party, I'm out of luck? Not really. The 2.5 million number is how many activation keys Microsoft will hand out to beta testers, not the number of actual downloads. (Yes, Windows 7 retains product activation.)

Microsoft won't pull the download after the 2.5 million, it will just stop handing out keys.

Minus a key, you can still download and install the beta, then run it for 30 days before it quits on you. And by using the same "slmgr -rearm" command that gained notoriety after Windows Vista's debut, you can extend that trial period to 120 days.

Several blogs have posted instructions on how to use this legal method to extend the lifespan of Windows 7 previews, including "My Digital Life."

What edition of Windows 7 is the beta? Microsoft said the beta is "roughly equivalent" to Vista Ultimate, which is a strong hint that the preview is actually Windows 7 Ultimate.

Microsoft's being cagey here because it refuses to say how many different editions of Windows 7 it will eventually sell, what they contain and how much they'll cost. Some have speculated, however, that unlike Windows Vista, which comes in five flavors -- Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate -- Windows 7 will be sold in four versions: Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate. How big is the download? Microsoft's not said, but since the beta's build designation of 7000.0.081212-1400 is identical to copies that have leaked to BitTorrent, it's a good bet that the official download will be the same as the pirated files.

On BitTorrent, the downloads are: 2.44GB for the 32-bit version, 3.15Gb for the 64-bit version.

What languages are supported? Microsoft's limited the beta to English, German, Japanese, Arabic and Hindi, with the last available only in 32-bit.

When does the beta expire? Microsoft stayed with the Aug. 1, 2009 expiration date, which it had used in earlier previews of the new OS, for the beta. On that date, the beta will stop working, according to the beta's end-user licensing agreement (EULA), which reads: "This software will stop running on August 1, 2009. You may not receive any other notice. You may not be able to access data used with the software when it stops running."

What's this I've heard about a bug in Windows 7? You've heard right. Microsoft has acknowledged a bug in Windows Media Player 12 -- the version bundled with Windows 7 -- that shaves two-to-three seconds from the beginning of MP3 audio files.

Here's the scoop from a Microsoft support forum: "When MP3 files are added (either manually or automatically) to either the Windows Media Player or the Windows Media Center library, or if the file metadata is edited with Windows Explorer, several seconds of audio data may be permanently removed from the start of the file. This issue occurs when files contain thumbnails or other metadata of significant size before importing or editing them."

Microsoft has produced a patch and posted that to TechNet and MSND, the two destinations where the beta is currently available. Expect that it will do the same for the public beta tomorrow; it's also possible that the patch will be offered via Windows Update once you've installed the beta.

A support document -- designated as "KB961367" -- has been assigned to the bug, but it's not yet available on Microsoft's Web site.

Microsoft also recommended that users back up all MP3 files before installing the beta, and set all of them to "read-only" status by right-clicking each file in Windows Explorer, then clicking the General tab and selecting the "Read-only" box.

Right. Like you have time for that.

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