On Tuesday, Microsoft will post Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) for the general public.
The milestone is important, since it's the one-and-only release candidate Microsoft will issue for Windows 7, making it the last public stop on the operating system's brief tour before it ships.
And when will that be? Microsoft's not saying, though at least one executive recently broke with past practice and admitted it's possible that Windows 7 would be out in time for the holidays. We're betting it shows up sometime between Aug. 28 and Sept. 20, dates based on the past pace from RC to final for Windows XP and Vista.
Windows 7 RC is also an important-to-get preview, because --while it's not final code -- you'll be able to use it until June 2010, more than a year away. Microsoft's largess has never been larger.
Nor, apparently, have its ambitions been greater, since Windows 7 must simultaneously pry people away from Windows XP while masking the odor left behind by Vista.
Has Microsoft pulled it off? Our reviewer said "RC1 is stable enough and fast enough that it's well worth the download," which, though not a ringing endorsement, is encouraging.
So you'll want to grab a copy and try it out, decide whether you'll -- finally -- ditch XP or give up on Vista. But where can you get it, how do you install it, what do you need to run it and can you upgrade from the beta or from Vista or from XP?
Questions, there are always questions. And we have the answers, most of them anyway.
When can I download the RC?
That's easy: Tuesday, May 5. Microsoft has declined to say exactly when it will throw the switch that day, but back in January, it originally pegged the beta's start time as noon, Pacific. (And we all know how well that worked out.)
Of course, if you subscribe to Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) or TechNet, you've been able to grab it since last Thursday afternoon (after the now seemingly-inevitable snafu on Microsoft's end).
Where do I get it?
The public download will be posted to the Windows 7 site, Microsoft said.
Windows 7 RC will be available in both 32- and 64-bit editions.
Is Microsoft limiting the release candidate, like it tried to do with the beta?
No. "There is no limit to the total number of downloads for Windows 7 RC," a company spokeswoman confirmed.
That's a change from the beta, or at least the plan for the beta, when Microsoft originally said it would turn off the spigot after 2.5 million product keys had been issued. But when eager users rushed the servers on opening day, bringing down the whole download plan, Microsoft backed off the 2.5-million mark and eventually let people download the public beta for one month after the restart. Even Microsoft learns from its mistakes, it seems, because not only will it not restrict the number of downloads, but it will make the RC available for nearly three times as long, until the end of July.