Windows 7 Microsoft released the ready-to-ship version of its Windows 7 operating system to software developers and IT professionals yesterday, raising the question as to when consumers will be able to get their hands on a copy.

Starting today, MSDN and TechNet subscribers can download a "release-to-manufacturing" (RTM) copy of Windows 7 in English, according to Microsoft's The Windows Blog. Versions in other languages will be available October 1.

Microsoft's Volume License (VL) customers with a Software Assurance licence will be able to download Windows 7 RTM in English starting Friday, with editions in other languages coming "in a few weeks". VL customers without an SA licence can also grab an RTM copy early, although they'll have to wait until September 1.

Haven't heard your name called yet?

If you're not a developer, IT pro or volume buyer, how can you get your hands on a copy before the official October 22 launch?

Beta testers who participated in Microsoft's Technical Beta Program - an invitation-only affair - can grab a free copy of Windows 7 Ultimate via the Microsoft Connect beta software site.

For the rest of us, the remaining options are limited. You could order Windows 7 now, of course, but it won't arrive until sometime near October 22. Or you could stroll the internet's dark alleyways and download a pirated copy of Windows 7 RTM, but we're not recommending that option. Recent reports indicate that Win 7's final code was leaked to several filesharing sites in July.

For a free test drive of Windows 7, you might want to download the Release Candidate (RC) from Microsoft. It may not be the final version, but it's pretty close. You'd better hurry, however, as the RC download is available only until August 20.

As test drives go, the RC is a marathon tour. It expires on June 1 2010, and will shut down every two hours starting March 1 2010. That's plenty of time to decide if a Windows 7 upgrade is worth the price.

See also:

Windows 7 RC1 review

Windows 7 upgrade rip-off for UK customers

FAQs: How to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7

Microsoft outlines details of Windows 7 release

Microsoft Windows 7: your questions answered

PC World