One of the more interesting innovations in the original version of Windows Vista was a feature called Windows Anytime Upgrade, which allowed users of the Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, and Business editions to upgrade to a higher-end version electronically. Pricing of these upgrades was, of course, significantly reduced over purchasing a retail Upgrade box, making the service both thriftier and less complicated.

There was just one problem: For whatever reason, many consumers balked at paying for an electronic upgrade. And because Windows Anytime Upgrade required the original Windows Vista install disc, many users had to wait for Microsoft to physically mail them a disc before they could perform the upgrade, undermining the advantages of the instant upgrade.

After a year of complaints, Microsoft finally removed the electronic option from Vista's Windows Anytime Upgrade functionality. Starting with the release of Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), this feature only offered users the ability to order physical packaging. So the actual upgrade would have to wait until the disc arrived in the mail.

Fortunately, for Windows 7, Microsoft has brought back immediate electronic upgrading via Windows Anytime Upgrade. In fact, that's the only way it works.

Windows Anytime Upgrade in Windows 7

For the Windows 7 version of Windows Anytime Upgrade, Microsoft removed the install disc requirement. Instead, all of the bits needed to upgrade a Windows 7 product edition to a higher-end edition are installed directly into the OS, so that they can be accessed at any time. Better still, the actual upgrade process is surprisingly fast: Microsoft says that a typical in-place upgrade via Windows Anytime Upgrade should only take about 10 minutes, and in my limited testing so far, that does seem to be the case.

While we don't yet know the pricing of the various Windows Anytime Upgrade options, we do know that Microsoft is offering a more logical set of product editions in Windows 7 than it did with Vista. This time around, each product edition builds off the last one, and each product edition is a true superset of the one below it. The retail versions of Windows 7--i.e. the ones that will qualify for Windows Anytime Upgrade--break down as follows (though be sure to read my article, Windows 7 Product Editions, for the complete lowdown on these and other versions):

Windows 7 Starter. The most basic Windows 7 product edition. You can upgrade from this version to Windows 7 Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate.

Windows 7 Home Basic. Aimed only a emerging markets, Windows 7 Home Basic can be upgraded to Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate.

Windows 7 Home Premium. This is the mainstream version of Windows 7 for consumers. You can upgrade from this version to Professional or Ultimate.

Windows 7 Professional. This is the mainstream Windows 7 version for IT professionals, enthusiasts, and business users. You can upgrade from this version to Windows 7 Ultimate.

Using Windows Anytime Upgrade

Note: The screenshots depicted below are from the Windows 7 Beta and will change before the final release. As newer versions of these screens become available, I will update this article accordingly.

In Windows 7, Windows Anytime Upgrade is now a standalone application instead of a control panel applet, as it was in Windows Vista. You can find it in the Start Menu under Extras and Upgrades, but the easiest way is to search for Anytime with Start Menu search.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade
Windows Anytime Upgrade can be found in the Windows 7 Start Menu.

The Windows Anytime Upgrade application presents two choices in its initial display: Go online and choose an edition of Windows 7 and Enter an upgrade key. If you choose the former option, you'll be presented with a page that compares the features available in each applicable Windows 7 product edition.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade
The Beta version of Windows 7 does not yet have the full SKU list available.

Secret: You will be able to purchase Windows Anytime Upgrade discs directly from online retailers such as Amazon.com, which explains the second choice. Indeed, because of occasional sales, you may want to shop around.

From here, you can access a Windows Anytime Upgrade FAQ as well as more thorough descriptions of each Windows 7 product edition.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade
Windows Anytime Upgrade FAQ.

When you're ready to purchase an upgrade, simply click the appropriate Buy It button. You'll be asked to sign in to a Windows Live ID account, enter or review your billing and payment information, and then complete the purchase. When you click the Complete Purchase button, your credit card is charged and Microsoft provides you with a receipt and a product key (in case you need to reinstall later).

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade
Completing the Windows Anytime Upgrade purchase.

After accepting the license terms, you are prompted to close any open applications and other windows so you can begin the upgrade. The application notes that a fully updated system should take about 10 minutes to upgrade and will reboot at least once.

Once the upgrade process is complete, you're prompted by Windows Anytime Upgrade.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade
Ten short minutes later ... you're done!

You can then verify that the upgrade was successful by checking the System properties window. (Open the Start Menu, right-click Computer, and click Properties.)

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade
You can make sure the upgrade went as planned in System Properties.

Secret: You will have to activate Windows 7 after any Anytime Upgrade even if the system was previously activated. But the standard 30-day grace period applies here, too.

Final thoughts

I've always felt that Windows Anytime Upgrade was a great idea and by making it fully automatic and electronic in Windows 7, Microsoft has made it even better. Of course, without knowing how Microsoft will price these upgrades, it's impossible to render any kind of a verdict quite yet. But I can say that even in beta form, Windows Anytime Upgrade works as advertised. This should prove to be a great way for Windows 7 users to upgrade when they're ready.