Windows Microsoft is pulling out all the stops to make Windows 7 the antidote to Windows Vista. However, rather than hyping the product by promising us groundbreaking new features like it did in the build-up to Vista's release in 2006, this summer the software giant hopes to seduce us by pandering to two of our basic instincts: our eye for a bargain and our fondness for the familiar.

You can now get your hands on the feature-complete Windows 7 for free, then use it for 12 months. Microsoft's PR machine announced in early May that the Release Candidate (RC) - the last version before the full product launch - was available to every PC user and would be fully operational until next summer.

That means if you're an XP user waiting for Microsoft's next operating system (OS) so you can avoid switching to Vista, you could give Windows 7 RC a go in the interim - provided your system's hardware specifications are up to scratch. Alternatively, if you simply want to try Windows 7 to check out the new features, they're all included in the version that's available now from Microsoft's site.

And a Windows 7 add-on announced at the end of April offered another reason why the new OS could be XP users' saviour. Windows XP Mode lets small businesses run applications designed for the eight-year-old platform in a virtual machine, thus providing backwards compatibility.

In terms of appealing to the masses, a brand-new, free version of Windows that's kind to XP users seemed to be a trump card. However, it soon became clear that both of these headline-grabbing offers were not quite what they seemed.

It turns out Windows XP Mode may be useful for some bigger companies that want to ensure Windows 7 compatibility with legacy applications, but it's not much use to the common man, and isn't available with all versions of Windows 7 anyway. Even those who do use it will find the experience clunky unless their system has a hefty complement of RAM.

And while nobody expected Windows 7 to be free forever, many had assumed Microsoft would remain true to its word and allow people to use the RC unimpeded for a year. Instead, the software giant subsequently announced that the RC will become all but unusable from next March. In nine months' time, it will begin systematically shutting down PCs and nagging users to upgrade to the retail version.

A worthy successor to Windows XP

Despite suspicions of cynicism on Microsoft's part, it's hard to be downbeat. The final version of Windows 7 should be with us in the autumn and, for the most part, it looks like the worthy replacement for Windows XP and Vista we've all been waiting for.

If you can't wait until then, this month's cover feature explains how to get the RC now, and goes through the main Windows 7 features that will appeal to all.

We can't recommend that the average user install it, so all this should come with the usual warnings about switching OS on your PC or laptop. But if you're a computing enthusiast, don't let the fact that this isn't a final version put you off. Windows 7 is every bit as stable as XP or Vista, and more.

Pick up a copy of our August issue, on sale today.