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Can I test-drive Windows 10 on my older PC for free? Getty Images

Can I test-drive Windows 10 on my older PC for free?

Q. I have a Vista-era PC with a 64-bit CPU. I'd like to upgrade but I'm not sure if I can, because Intel's site warns ’64-bit computing on Intel architecture requires a computer system with a processor, chipset, BIOS, operating system, device drivers and applications enabled for Intel 64 architecture. Processors will not operate without an Intel 64 architecture-enabled BIOS.’

Should I be worried about the BIOS? How can I test-drive Windows 10 to see if it works on my older PC?

A. The Intel cautions are correct.

You should be able to get Win10 running on just about any older PC that meets the basic requirements, but for a 64-bit version of Windows — or any operating system — to fully function, the system has to be 64-bit compatible from top to bottom.

The trouble is, some PCs (mostly older models) are hybrids that combine 64-bit processors with other 32-bit system-level hardware. So, how can you tell whether your system is fully 64-bit compatible — and thus able to run Win10 x64? Here are three ways:

1 -- The safest approach is to contact the computer manufacturer’s tech support and ask their advice for your specific model PC. They should be able to look up whether your system is fully Win10 capable — and whether there are any other issues such as driver support that might cause problems with Win10 x64 vs. x86.

2 -- The more direct option is to do a free, experimental Win10 clean-install. You don’t need a product key and formal activation.

If you install Win10 Home or Pro without a key and/or activation, you’ll see nag screens every few hours. Also, some operating system features will be turned off and some screens will be watermarked. However, the basic OS will work well enough to confirm whether your system is able to run Win10 correctly.

3 -- You can download and install a free, 90-day evaluation copy of Win10 Enterprise edition. It runs without any limits or nag screens during the evaluation period.

So when the free upgrade option isn’t available, here’s how to test drive Win10 on any PC that meets the basic system requirements, using those two download options.

  • Start by making a full, verified backup or image of your entire current system.
  • Next, obtain the Win10 setup of your choice. You can use the Win10 download site to create a Win10 Home or Pro setup disk or flash drive. Or download an evaluation copy of Win10 Enterprise and burn that to a disc or flash drive. You can pick the 64-bit or 32-bit version of Win10 with either option.
  • You won’t have the option for an upgrade, where you retain portions of the previous OS. So use the Win10 setup disc or drive to do a clean install. Let the process reformat your PC’s hard drive (totally wiping out the previous setup) and install Win10 on the bare drive.
  • If you get prompts to enter a product key, select the Skip and Do this later options.

If Win10 installs and runs properly on your PC, you’re all set; you can then use Win10’s Activation links (click Settings/Update & security/Activation) to purchase a product key online and activate the new Windows setup you’re already running — no OS reinstallation required. Activation enables any crippled OS functions and removes the nag screens.

On the other hand, if Win10 won’t install or runs poorly, use your backups or system images to restore your original, pre-experiment setup.

Note: You can try Win10 x64 on your system first. If it fails, simply repeat the preceding process for the 32-bit version of the OS. Because Steve’s system has no trouble running 32-bit Vista, and its hardware exceeds Win10 requirements, it’ll almost surely run Win10 x32, should the 64-bit version fail.

Bottom line: As long as an older PC meets basic Win10 requirements, it should be able to run the new OS. And you can try the OS before you buy — to ensure it will install, set up, and work for you!

(Originally published on Windows Secrets on Thursday, October 15, 2015.)


Editor's note: We feature an abridged Q&A from Fred Langa's LANGALIST, a column available exclusively to paid subscribers of the Windows Secrets newsletter, on Wednesdays. What you see here is just a small sampling of what Langa's writing for the newsletter — go here for more information on how to subscribe.

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