Mainly out of professional interest, I downloaded and installed a trial copy of Windows 7 Ultimate, which is now available to the general public.

Before you run out and install a copy yourself, heed my advice: do not try this at home! Microsoft is not releasing this software so regular users can get a free copy of Windows! They’re doing it so professional and expert users can try out the nearly-finished software and find and report bugs or other problems. In other words, this is a public test, not a sales promotion.

In fact, I would advise most people not to “upgrade” even when Windows 7 becomes available for sale. Installing a new operating system is neither fun nor enlightening, and it is almost certain to cause something about your computer to stop working. For most users, it’s smarter to just wait it’s time to buy a new computer, and then get one with Windows 7 pre-installed.

Windows 7 License Agreement

I should say a few words about the Windows 7 license agreement, because it contains some odious terms that undermine consumer rights. This has become typical of commercial software these days.

The first thing to note is that the evaluation copy of WIndows 7 will stop working after June, 2010. Anyone who has installed it will have to either buy a new copy and re-install it, or go back to their old operating system. This is perfectly fair; it’s an evaluation copy. It’s clearly announced in the license agreement. None the less, a number of people on slashdot seemed shocked and outraged that their “free” copy of Windows won’t last forever.

The expiration date isn’t the problem. The really odious thing in the license agreement is the activation clause. When you first install Windows 7, and at unspecified times after that, Windows 7 contacts Microsoft to make sure, as Microsoft puts it, “your copy of Windows is genuine.” That means they’re looking in a database to see if you’ve paid. If they ever get the impression your copy is not “genuine,” Microsoft has what amounts to a kill switch they can use to shut down your computer. If this is at all a chilling prospect, then don’t buy an iPhone.

Here’s an important point: the need for activation means Windows 7 will only work on one computer. Ever. You can’t install it on one machine and then later move it to another. Microsoft considers that “piracy” — even if you were to uninstall it from the first computer. I’m serious. So don’t pay money for Windows 7 except as part of a brand-new computer.

Installation

Installation of Windows 7 didn’t go smoothly for me. The first problem was that the installer gave me two options, to “upgrade” my current copy of Windows or “clean install” (which is horrible grammar, but it means writing over my current copy of Windows and erasing everything it knows about my computer and all my other software). So I tried “upgrade” to see how it would work. It didn’t.

The problem was that the “upgrade” only works if you are upgrading from Windows XP Service Pack 2 or later. At the time, I had Windows 2000 installed. This is not a big deal, but the installer could easily have determined that and told me the hard truth: the only way I was getting Windows 7 onto my system was a clean installation. Instead it teased me and wasted my time by letting me think the upgrade was worth trying.

The truth is, I was emotionally prepared to blow away my old copy of Windows. What I was not prepared for was for the “clean install” to stop halfway through with a thoroughly unhelpful error message to the effect, “Windows 7 didn’t install properly. Please try again.” No mention of why.

I’ve got a news flash for ya. If a computer tries to do something, and it doesn’t work, and it tries again, there’s a darned good chance it won’t work again. So a better message would be,

Windows 7 didn’t install properly. We’re too lazy to figure out why or even give you a hint. Don’t even bother trying again until you solve this little mystery. Good luck.

It turns out, my hard drive was too full. The installer had helpfully backed up my old copy of Windows 2000 when I tried the upgrade earlier, and now there was not enough space for Windows 7. I figured this out by guessing. Microsoft didn’t put on a Web page information about how much disk space you actually need, as far as I can tell. They just sort of figured everyone has plenty of disk space.

See why I said, “don’t try this at home?”

To be continued…