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updated 4/30/2009 9:02:10 PM ET 2009-05-01T01:02:10

Microsoft released a near-final version of the Windows 7 operating system to a large group of technology-savvy testers Thursday that adds a few new features, including a way to run Windows XP applications. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

The Windows 7 "release candidate" will be available for anyone to download and try out on May 5. The release candidate is typically the version used by Microsoft's corporate customers to test how the new system will work for them. Software developers, hardware makers and other partners also base their next-generation products on this version because they trust that it's stable and close to finished.

Microsoft published the Vista release candidate about five months before the final version went on sale to consumers. If Windows 7 were to follow the same trajectory, it could be available by the start of October. Officially, Microsoft expects to start selling Windows 7 by the end of January 2010, but has said this week that it is possible it could launch in time for the holiday shopping season.

The software maker is counting on Windows 7 to win over businesses that put off upgrading to Vista, which got off to a rough start because it didn't work well with many existing programs and devices.

And Microsoft drew criticism from consumers when many computers advertised beforehand as "Vista capable" were actually too weak to run Vista's highly touted new interface and other features. People who wanted to upgrade Windows XP computers found their graphics cards and other components weren't up to the task.

The new system is already set up for a smoother debut because it shares much of Vista's underlying technology, which means hardware and software makers have had more than two years to catch up to a more demanding set of requirements.

And Microsoft has pushed the notion that the high-end version of Windows 7 will run on many more computers than Vista, including tiny, low-powered laptops called netbooks. Today, Microsoft sells Windows XP, a much less profitable version of its operating system, to PC makers like Dell and Hewlett-Packard to install on netbooks.

On Thursday, Microsoft revealed that the basic requirements for running a high-end version of Windows 7 aren't much different from those needed to run the bulkier versions of Vista.

However, critics said the Vista requirements for memory and other components should have been set higher, and Microsoft says Windows 7 is better at managing memory and not bogging down less-powerful machines.

Microsoft unveiled a few new features in the release candidate that didn't exist in the January beta, including something called "Windows XP Mode." The feature, available for the release candidate as a separate download, will let people run many XP-era programs from a Windows 7 computer.

The release candidate also adds a way for people to access music and other media files stored on their home PC over the Internet from other Windows 7 machines.

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