Are these £23 copies of Windows 10 legitimate?

A new copy of Windows is around £100 if you buy it in a shop, but less than £25 online. And if it comes with a new computer it’s often free. How does that add up?

Windows 10 could cost you £100, or nothing.

It is something of anachronism that a PC and its operating system are still bought and sold separately. It has never been the case with phones or tablets, and it’s not something that owners of Macintosh computers have had to consider for some years now.

However, since Microsoft makes Windows but not most of the hardware it runs on, it remains a substantial earner for them. The cost is baked into every new machine you buy or build, and it’s one of the most expensive components. It’s no use arguing that you already have a copy of Windows on your old computer, because the licence doesn’t allow it to be copied from one to another.

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All that being so, it is hardly surprising that websites offering a brand new and supposedly legal copy of Windows 10 for only £23 are attracting attention. With bargains like that, why buy retail?

The question is whether these “grey market” versions of Windows, which you download from a website, really are legitimate – and it will take a roomful of lawyers to answer that, and even then not definitively.

Lizengo is the best-known, but by no means the only, purveyor of cut-price operating systems. It currently offers the Home version of Windows 10 for £23 and the “professional” variant for an extra £10. The website supplies you with an immediate and sizable download, and a licence key which you use to activate the product, once installed. It should work in exactly the same way as the retail version, which is admittedly quite a low bar.

How can Lizengo sell it so cheaply? Here is where Microsoft’s complex licencing system comes in – for as well as selling Windows through shops and its own website, it makes copies available in bulk to the original manufacturers of PCs around the world – so-called OEMs. It also supplies special licences to universities, which can be used on as many as 30 machines at a time. All of these versions are priced way below the usual rate, and in the case of many low power laptops and cheap, mini-PCs they are free. Yet the software is the same.

It is these copies – or in reality just the licences – Lizengo says it is selling. It says this is legal, and indeed in Germany it has made them available in glossy cardboard envelopes on the racks at supermarket checkouts along with Amazon gift cards and other temptations.

Microsoft takes a different view, arguing that the OEM licences were either not intended to be available direct to the public or were destined for users in a different country, and are therefore being resold in contravention of its terms.

It is also unclear where Lizengo gets them from, unless the number of licences available in certain parts of the world far outstrips the number of PCs being produced.

The only question that matters, though, is whether they work, and the answer appears to be that they do. However, because Microsoft is in a position to check them whenever it wants, it is impossible to guarantee that it will not at some time in the future declare your licence invalid and plaster notices on your screen to that effect.

With this in mind, should you buy Windows for £23 instead of £100? It’s a gamble, but with the stake money that low, it’s not really not much of one.

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James Mitchinson