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Ask the editor: Should I buy a new laptop now, or wait for Windows 7?

That's a key question being asked by students, parents, and anyone in the market for a new laptop. We detail every major PC maker's Windows 7 upgrade process.

As we've just completed a massive 30-plus system roundup of retail back-to-school laptops and desktops, that's a key question being asked by students, parents, and anyone in the market for a new laptop. There are likely several considerations going through any potential new laptop owner's mind right now, such as:

If I buy a laptop now, can I get Windows 7 for free?
Yes, with some important caveats. From June 26, 2009 through January 31, 2010, Microsoft and many major PC makers are offering free upgrades to Windows 7 for those who want to buy a Vista-powered laptop now. The deals are all essentially the same, and, as expected, have some exceptions and asterisks.

Let's take a look at some of the specifics for the brands you're most likely to buy. Click the gallery link below and we'll show you the details for your favorite PC brand, including Dell, HP, Gateway, Acer, Asus, Lenovo, and Sony, complete with upgrade terms and instructions, and links to each PC maker's free Windows 7 upgrade request forms.

Will a laptop bought now be obsolete in a few months?
To be certain, with the launch of Windows 7, many PC makers will no doubt release new models and revisions of current models. Still, the same could be said of virtually any consumer electronics purchase--there's always something newer, faster, and maybe even less expensive, coming around the corner. Especially if you need a new back-to-school system, it's generally not going to make a huge difference if you rely on your laptop for Web surfing, e-mail, office docs, and media playback.

Do I want to deal with the hassle of upgrading?
Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows Vista was not a trouble-free process for many, to put it mildly. In our handful of tests, however, we have been able to move from Vista to Windows 7 without killing our machines--although, generally speaking, a clean install is more likely to be trouble-free. Wanting to start fresh with a Windows 7 laptop would be a legitimate reason to wait, but not a deal-killer if you need a new laptop right now.

Getting your free Windows 7 upgrade is handled through the company you bought your PC from, not by Microsoft, and in most cases you'll have to register and fill out some online forms. At some point after October 22, you'll receive a physical copy of Windows 7 via snail mail. The upgrade path looks like this:

Windows Vista Home Premium→Windows 7 Home Premium
Windows Vista Business→Windows 7 Professional
Windows Vista Ultimate→Windows 7 Ultimate

Using Vista basic? Tough luck! Also worth noting, upgrades are arriving via DVD, so you'll have to have a DVD drive available. Also royally screwed are Netbook buyers who have Windows XP. Not only do you not get a free upgrade, you can't do a direct upgrade to Windows 7--instead you have to do a clean install, wiping your hard drive in the process.

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> See CNET's full Windows 7 review here.
> Missed the big gallery link above? Brand by brand details on getting your free Windows 7 upgrade are here.