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Will Windows Insider testers get to keep Windows 10 for free?

Those in the Insider program have been getting preview builds of Windows 10 for free for testing. With Windows 10 about to hit the market, Microsoft wants to clarify things.

Will Windows Insiders get Windows 10 for free? Microsoft answers that question. screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Microsoft is trying to clear up the confusion over whether Windows Insiders will be entitled to the final version of Windows 10.

The question of who would get Windows 10 for free seemed a simple one at first. In January, Microsoft announced that users running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 could upgrade to the new OS for free for the first year. By extension, that meant those still using Windows XP or Vista would have to pay for Windows 10. But a blog post published Friday by Gabe Aul, head of the Windows Insider Program, intimated that those in the program -- who have been getting preview versions of Windows 10 at no cost, in a series of trial runs -- would also get the final release for free, seemingly regardless of their current version of Windows.

The final version of Windows 10 is scheduled to roll out July 29.

With the return of the Start menu and other new and improved features, Windows 10 is in many ways an atonement for Windows 8, which failed to catch on with consumers. The new OS is also an attempt to offer a similar experience among PC, tablet and mobile phone users, with Microsoft hoping that those who try Windows 10 on a PC might be persuaded to try it on a smartphone. As such, the software giant is aiming to get Windows 10 into the hands of as many people as possible, at least within reason.

On Monday, Aul clarified that Windows Insiders won't be getting Windows 10 for free, at least not exactly.

Though July 29 marks the release of the "final" version of Windows 10, Microsoft will continue to tweak and enhance the operating system beyond that date. The company will also continue to run the Windows Insider program, through which participants can download the latest preview builds to test Windows 10 as it continues to evolve and then offer Microsoft their feedback.

And it's those preview builds that Windows Insiders will freely receive on a regular basis. Each preview build expires at a certain point, but Microsoft promises that it will be replaced by the next build. So in essence, those who wish to remain in the Windows Insider Program can get Windows 10 for free, but the version you run will always be a prerelease build, in other words a non-activated beta product.

"Since we're continuing the Windows Insider Program you'll be able to continue receiving builds and those builds will continue to be activated under the terms of the Windows Insider Program," Aul said. "We provide ISOs for these builds for recovery from any significant problems, but they are still pre-release software."

Those who wish to upgrade to the fully-tested and public release of Windows 10 on July 29 as well as in the future still need to be running Windows 7 or 8.1 to qualify for the free upgrade.

As Aul describes it in his blog post, users can choose from a couple of scenarios:

Do you want to continue as a Windows Insider and keep getting preview builds after 7/29?

Or do you want to upgrade your Genuine Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 system that has been getting Windows 10 Insider Preview builds to the 7/29 release and stop being an Insider?

Or to put it another way, do you wish to remain in the Windows Insider program to keep gettting beta and usually buggy versions of Windows 10 for free? Or do you want to be sure you're running Windows 7 or 8.1 so you can get the final and fully-tested public release of Windows 10 for free?

Aul also stressed that XP or Vista users who quit the Window Insider program will have to acquire a legitimate license for Windows 10.

"This is not a path to attain a license for Windows XP or Windows Vista systems," Aul said. "If your system upgraded from a Genuine Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 license it will remain activated, but if not, you will be required to roll back to your previous OS version or acquire a new Windows 10 license. If you do not roll back or acquire a new license the build will eventually expire."

Of course, Windows 7 and 8.1 users who are part of the Windows Insider program can choose to stick with it. That way you can preview each new build of Windows 10 as it comes out and run the legitimate licensed version as well.