How to buy Windows 7 for £50 less: the truth about OEM versions

Tim Danton delves behind the myths and misinformation to explain why the OEM version of Windows 7 offers excellent value with few drawbacks

Anyone who’s built their own PC will have shuddered at the cost of buying a full version of Windows, until they stumble upon the apparent bargain that is the OEM version. Created for PC makers such as Dell, HP and Mesh, it offers a chance to buy a genuine version of Windows for around half the price of the “retail” box.

Let’s put that into real figures. Right now, you can buy a retail version of Windows Vista Home Premium for £125 inc VAT from Amazon.co.uk. The OEM version costs £78. If you want Ultimate, the difference is £160 versus £136.

Note that I’m not using Windows 7 prices here. That’s because there are no OEM versions currently on sale (these won’t arrive until after Windows 7 hits the shelves at the end of October) and because, at the moment, Windows 7 is being heavily discounted – Amazon is actually selling Windows 7 Home Premium for £65 inc VAT on pre-order.

So what’s the difference? What are the restrictions? Is it a genuine saving or a false economy? To find out, I spoke to Laurence Painell, Windows OEM & WGA Product Manager.

What is an OEM version anyway?

Windows 7 Home Premium boxshot

OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer, and in this context refers to PC makers. The idea is that Microsoft charges them significantly less money for their version, but in return they don’t get any plush packaging and the PC maker has to provide all the customer support.

Usually, online stores such as Scan.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk make it obvious that you’re buying an OEM version rather than the “full” retail box – what Microsoft refers to as the FPP, or fully packaged product. Look out for the telltale label “OEM” or, in Amazon’s case, “OEI”.

The official Microsoft line on OEM versions

There’s plenty of confusion over whether Microsoft officially condones the sale of the OEM version of Windows to the public. At one point it would turn a blind eye if the software was included with a piece of hardware (such as a mouse), while others pointed to the message printed on the back of the OEM Systems Builder Pack packaging: “Each individual software license inside this package may ONLY be distributed with a fully assembled computer system.”

However, it seems common sense has prevailed, and it’s clear from our interview with Laurence Painell that Microsoft is actually quite happy for consumers to install the OEM version of Windows themselves.

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