Microsoft’s new Windows Upgrade Offer allows purchasers of qualifying Windows 7-based PCs to receive a low-cost upgrade to Windows 8 Pro via electronic delivery. Is this is a good deal? And as important, is this really a good time to buy a Windows PC?

Last month, Mary Jo Foley revealed that Microsoft would soon offer a new Windows Upgrade Offer so that buyers of Windows 7-based PCs would be able to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for a low cost. A few days later, I reported that the price of this upgrade would be just $14.99, adding a crucial bit of detail that started debates about whether the offer was a good deal or bad. But now that the new Windows Upgrade Offer is out in the open, we can examine what Microsoft is doing here. And I think you’ll agree that this is quite a good deal indeed. Assuming, that is, that you really need a PC right away.

According to Microsoft, the Windows Upgrade Offer enables any individual who buys a new PC preinstalled with Windows 7 Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate between June 2, 2012 and January 31, 2013 to purchase an upgrade coupon for Windows 8 Pro for $14.99 (US; the offer is available in 130 different countries). To obtain the upgrade, you must register at the Windows Upgrade Offer web site by February 28, 2013. When Windows 8 is made generally available—i.e. when the OS ships to the public, not when it is finalized, or released to manufacturing (RTM)—you will receive an email from Microsoft with a promotion code and instructions for purchasing and downloading the software. That is, the upgrade offer is for an electronic software distribution (ESD) version of Windows 8, or a downloadable file, which you can use to make bootable DVD or USB Setup media. (If you want Microsoft to send you Windows 8 on physical DVD media, you can do so for an additional charge.)

Customers can receive only one upgrade offer per purchased PC. But each customer can obtain a maximum of 5 upgrade offers (by buying up to 5 PCs during the promotional time period). Payment can be made by any major credit card or via PayPal. (This varies by country; only VISA and Mastercard are supported in every single market.)

You are eligible for 90 days of free telephone-based Windows 8 support from Microsoft, beginning on the day that Windows 8 is installed and activated, and not on the purchase date.

You are not limited to installing Windows 8 on the PC that qualified for the upgrade offer, incidentally: According to Microsoft, you may install Windows 8 “on any compatible Windows-based PC with a qualifying operating system.”

For more information about the Windows Upgrade Offer, please refer to Microsoft’s Program Info FAQ.

Thinking about this offer, two questions emerge. Is it a good deal? And is now the right time to purchase a PC on which you will later run Windows 8?

As to the deal, yes, it’s a tremendous deal, and it differs from past upgrade offers in some key ways.

First, Microsoft is not trying to shoehorn you into a version of Windows 8 that most closely matches the Windows 7 version you’re buying. Instead, they’re simply offering one version, the high-end Windows 8 Pro version, and you will get that even if you somehow manage to find a new PC running the lowly Windows 7 Home Edition.

Second, it is Microsoft providing the upgrade, not the PC maker. This is a big difference with the past, and it has important ramifications for the Windows 8 upgrade experience. You’re not limited to the PCs that hardware makers want to support. And instead of waiting on your PC maker to slowly deliver the upgrade, and potentially mucking it up with crapware and other unwanted additions, you will receive a clean, unadulterated version of Windows 8 directly from Microsoft. It will arrive immediately—i.e. on the day that Windows 8 is made available to the world—and you can get it electronically, keep it that way, or create Setup media of your own. 

Third and finally, you do not have to install this copy of Windows 8 on the PC that qualified for the upgrade. You can install it on any PC.

$15 for Windows 8 Pro? That’s the deal of the century.

But what about that PC?

Some are arguing that you’d be crazy to buy a new PC now, that what you really want to do is wait for some newfangled, touch-based tablet or hybrid computer, so you can best take advantage of Windows 8’s new touch-first user experiences. But that advice may not line up with your needs. If you actually do need a computer right now and/or will in fact be using Windows 8 on a traditional mouse- and keyboard-based PC for the foreseeable future, now is in fact an excellent time to buy a computer.

Picking nits, I guess I’d give the general advice that you should at least buy a modern PC based on a third generation Intel Core processor (“Ivy Bridge”). The desktop variants are out now and the portable versions are coming very soon. Avoid netbooks, of course, since they’re awful, generally, and do not meet the minimum requirements for a good Windows 8 experience at all.

The way I see it, you either need a computer now or you don’t. And if you do, there’s no reason to hold back. The Windows Upgrade Offer is just a nearly-free cherry on top of the whole experience. And since I’ve been running Windows 8 on brand new computers like my Ivy Bridge-based HP desktop and two new Ultrabooks (a second generation Samsung 900x and an ASUS Zenbook), I can tell you from experience that Windows 8 doesn’t just run well on this hardware, it flies. And I’ll take it a step further: Almost anyone reading this site should feel comfortable blowing away Windows 7 and using the Windows 8 Release Preview until the final version ships. It’s out now, it’s free, and it works well. Even the Upgrade experience from Windows 7 is pretty great.

Put simply, the Windows Upgrade Offer isn’t the only reason to buy a Windows 7-based PC now, but the pending release of Windows 8 is likewise no reason to wait, not if you need a computer and are anticipating using it with Windows 8 in the future anyway. There’s no meaningful downside to this offer at all.

Check out the Windows Upgrade Offer for more information.