Microsoft has a program which few people are aware of that allows users of select Windows editions to run older operating systems. They call this “downgrade rights”, and even among those who are aware of this option there is often confusion about what all it covers and how to take advantage of it. This brief FAQ is intended to address some of the more common issues that can come up, and link to further details for those who need them.
What versions are eligible to use downgrade rights, and what versions can they downgrade to?
Only the Professional versions of Windows desktop operating systems include downgrade rights, and the easy rule of thumb is that they can be downgraded to the Pro version of the previous two major releases. So for example, Windows 10 Pro can downgrade to Windows 8.1 Pro or Windows 7 Pro.
There is also a limit in place, though: you can’t downgrade to a version of Windows once it is past the end of its support lifecycle. So while Windows 7 Pro could originally be downgraded to Vista Business or XP Pro the latter of those is now no longer an option - and in early 2017 Vista won’t be an option either.
Why would you want to use downgrade rights?
Most people won’t, but there are two potential use cases I can think of:
1) To use an older version of Windows, perhaps required by software a user is running, while having the option to later install the newer version of Windows which they purchased.
2) To gain access to an older version of Windows once licenses for it are no longer sold. This will soon be the situation users who need Windows 7 will find themselves in, as Microsoft has stated that it will stop selling Windows 7 Pro licenses in the fall of 2016. The Home and Ultimate versions have already been dropped in this fashion.
Ideally, though, the need to run older versions of Windows should decrease over time - so that by the time actual licenses for a given version of Windows are no longer sold there are few (if any) users who still need new systems with the older OS. At some point the hardware will impose further limitations as well: a point comes at which drivers for new motherboards, video cards, and other components are not released for deprecated versions of Windows, and at that point even if downgrade rights still exist it may not be feasible to install or run older versions of Windows.
How can the downgrade rights be utilized?
Microsoft’s instructions for using downgrade rights call for end users to purchase a system with a proper Windows license pre-installed, and then upon receipt of the computer and acceptance of the Windows license terms to load the desired, downgraded version of Windows manually. To do so requires installation media - either a bootable CD, DVD, or USB drive with the various files needed - along with a legitimate license key for the OS that you are downgrading to.
Not everyone has those handy, of course, which can be a complication in and of itself. Further, if the license key is already in use there is a good chance that automatic activation online will fail - after all, this looks to the software and activation system like someone is trying to pirate Windows by using a given key on more than one system. Instead of providing an automated solution, or simply not caring about older OS licenses, Microsoft’s way of dealing with this is to require the end user to call one of their activation centers. That requires wading through a few minutes of automated interaction, before finally getting a live support person - and then explaining to them the situation and getting from them a 1-time code to allow activation. And if you later need to re-install the downgraded operating system? Yup: you’ll have to call in again.
Will Puget Systems install a downgraded version of Windows on a new computer?
No. We have offered this informally in the past, but as noted in the answer to the previous question this is really designed to be done by an end user. The installation process itself is not too odious, though it does require install media *and an install key* for the older OS - which we may not have on hand... but it is the activation which is a real pain.
Calling in to a Microsoft activation center is not a fun experience, and the support person on the other end is sometimes not familiar with the downgrade program and won’t cooperate. This can lead to multiple phone calls to try and get a system activated, which holds up the process not only of installing and testing that one computer but also any others which our install technician is working on.
And to top it all off, installing the downgrade OS here cuts customers off from a lot of support resources. It means we cannot create a restore image for the OS they are actually purchasing, since it wasn’t installed, and it also means the customer wouldn’t have an original Microsoft install disc for the OS they are actually running (since they would have the newer OS disc instead). This makes it difficult to repair or reload the installed OS, and also hardware to upgrade to the actual purchased OS at a later date.
Between those issues and the fact that Microsoft specifically says this is supposed to be done by the end user, we cannot offer such downgraded installations any longer.
For those brave souls who want to attempt to use Windows downgrade rights, or those who are simply interested in more information, Microsoft has a page with further details. This is where a lot of the answers summarized above come from, and it also covers the downgrade rights for Server versions of Windows.