Windows 10 is coming, it's way better -- and free

It's no secret that Microsoft (MSFT) has had a hard time for the last few years. It hasn't gotten any traction against Apple's (AAPL) iPhone with its tepidly received Windows Phone, and that's nothing compared to Windows 8: For the most part, everyone hates it.

Things might be turning around, though. Recently, Microsoft has been pulling back the curtain on the forthcoming Windows 10, and reviewers and beta testers are very happy with the new operating system, at least in its beta state.

But how do you win back a hostile public that's still angry about Windows 8? You give away the new version for free, of course. And believe it or not, that's exactly what Microsoft is doing.

At Microsoft's recent Windows 10 event, it unveiled plans to make Windows 10 free to anyone currently running Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1. (That means anyone still running Windows XP or Windows Vista will need to purchase Windows 10.) The offer will be good for one year from the time that Windows 10 is released, so you don't need to spring into action immediately to take advantage.

And that's good news, because Windows 10 is shaping up to be the release that makes up for the many perceived sins of Windows 8. It restores the Start menu to the desktop, for example (after a fashion -- it's a Start menu with live tiles attached, as if the modern start screen were grafted onto the side of the old Start menu), and it emphasizes the mouse and keyboard on computers that don't have a touch screen.

Windows' notification center is also getting a substantial upgrade. For gamers, Xbox is being deeply integrated into Windows. A new, streamlined and speedy Web browser will replace Internet Explorer. And Cortana -- Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri personal assistant -- which first appeared on Windows Phone, will land in Windows 10 as well.

And you don't have to wait until this fall to try it out. You can install the latest beta of Windows 10 for free. To do that, you need to download the Windows 10 Technical Preview. Beware, though. Windows 10 is still in beta, so you shouldn't install it on a computer you rely on for mission-critical work. It's safest to install it on a second PC, or on a virtual machine like VirtualBox.

Either way, you can get a taste today of the newest version of Windows. And enjoy knowing that when it does ship toward the end of the year, you won't have to pay for it.