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Activating and Validating Windows 7

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Windows 7 includes a set of antipiracy and antitampering features that Microsoft refers to collectively as Windows Activation Technologies (in previous Windows versions, these were included under the Windows Genuine Advantage branding). The various checks and challenges in Windows 7 are, in essence, enforcement mechanisms for the Windows 7 license agreement, which is displayed during the process of installing the operating system (you must provide your consent to complete setup). We're not lawyers, so we won't attempt to interpret this license agreement. We do recommend that you read the license agreement, which is fairly straightforward and is written clearly enough that even a non-lawyer can understand it. In this section, we explain how the activation and validation mechanisms in Windows 7 affect your use of the operating system.

1. Entering a Product Key

When you perform a clean installation or upgrade an existing Windows installation using a retail copy of Windows 7, you might be prompted to enter a 25-character alphanumeric product key that uniquely identifies your licensed copy of Windows.

Here are some key facts you should know about this procedure:

  • The product key is entered automatically on any copy of Windows that is preinstalled on a new PC by a large computer maker. If you use the Windows 7 media supplied by the PC manufacturer to reinstall this copy of Windows, you won't be required to enter a product key.

  • Your product key matches your edition of Windows. If you purchase a full or upgrade version of Windows 7 from a retail outlet, the installation media (typically a DVD) contains a configuration file that automatically installs the edition you purchased. The product key works only with that edition.

  • You are not required to enter a product key when installing Windows 7. If you leave the Product Key box blank and click Next, the setup program continues. You will be prompted to enter a valid product key later, when you activate Windows.

If you choose to install Windows 7 without entering a product key, you might be asked to select the edition you want to install (a file named Ei.cfg, in the Sources folder on the installation disk, can restrict these options to a specific edition; if that file exists, you will not see this list of options). You can then use the installed copy of Windows 7 without restriction for 30 days. Before the end of that 30-day grace period, you must enter a valid product key and activate your copy, as described in the next section. If you fail to complete these steps, Windows displays notifications at startup that urge you to activate your installation; additional reminders appear on the desktop and in the notification area. To make the notifications more visible, Windows replaces your personalized desktop background with a stark black background

Inside Out: Extend your activation grace period by 30 days

The 30-day period before activation is required is called the grace period. If, at the end of that 30 days, you are not ready to activate, you can extend the grace period by an additional 30 days and continue your evaluation. Open a Command Prompt window using the Run As Administrator option and type the following command: slmgr –rearm. When the command completes, restart your computer. You can run this command a total of three times, giving you up to 120 days of use before activation is required.

2. Activating a Retail Copy of Windows

Just as with Windows XP and Windows Vista, you must activate your installation of a retail copy of Windows 7 within 30 days, either by connecting to a Microsoft activation server over the internet or by making a toll-free call to an interactive telephone activation system.

The activation mechanism is designed to enforce license restrictions by preventing the most common form of software piracy: casual copying. Typically, a Windows 7 license entitles you to install the operating system software on a single computer. If you use the same product key to install Windows 7 on a second (or third or fourth) system, you might be unable to activate the software automatically. One important exception to this rule is the Windows 7 Family Pack, which allows Windows 7 Home Premium edition to be installed and activated on up to three PCs in the same home.

In the Set Up Windows dialog box where you enter your product key, the Automatically Activate Windows When I'm Online check box is selected by default. If you leave this option selected, Windows will contact the activation servers three days after installation and complete the activation process for you. At any time, you can confirm your system's activation status by looking at the Windows Activation section at the bottom of the System dialog box. (Click Start, right-click Computer, and click Properties.) This dialog box displays the number of days left in the grace period and includes links where you can manually activate or change your product key.

If the 30-day grace period expires and you have not successfully activated your installation, you'll see the dialog box shown in Figure 1. Click Activate Windows Online Now to begin the internet activation process. If you left the Product Key box blank when installing Windows 7, you'll be prompted to enter a valid product key before you can complete activation.

Figure 1. If you fail to activate Windows 7 within 30 days after installation, you're greeted with this dialog box when you log on.

Under most circumstances, activation over the internet takes no more than a few seconds. If you need to use the telephone, the process takes longer because you have to enter a 50-digit identification key (either by using the phone's dial pad or by speaking to a customer service representative) and then input the 42-digit confirmation ID supplied in response.

Inside Out: Don't rush to activate your installation

When you install a retail copy of Windows 7, the default settings delay automatic activation for three days. We recommend that you clear the Automatically Activate Windows When I'm Online check box when entering your product key. This option gives you a full 30 days to verify that Windows 7 works properly on your hardware and that you won't be required to replace any hardware or the entire computer. After you're confident that Windows 7 is completely compatible with your hardware, you can open the System dialog box and choose the manual activation option.

What if you skip past this setting during setup and forget to change it? Disabling automatic activation requires a registry edit. (As always, the standard disclaimers apply: Don't try this unless you understand the consequences, including the risk that editing the registry incorrectly can damage your system configuration.) Open Registry Editor and select the key HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Software-ProtectionPlatform\Activation. In the right pane, double-click the Manual value and change it from 0 to 1.

The activation process is completely anonymous and does not require that you divulge any personal information. If you choose to register your copy of Windows 7, this is a completely separate (and optional) task.

You're allowed to reinstall Windows 7 an unlimited number of times on the same hardware. During the activation process, Windows transmits a hashed file that serves as a "fingerprint" of key components in your system. When you attempt to activate Windows using the same product key you used previously, the activation server calculates a new fingerprint and compares the value against the one stored in its database. If you're reinstalling Windows 7 on the original hardware, the fingerprints will match and activation will be automatic.

Just as with earlier Windows versions, the activation process is designed to prevent attempts to tamper with the activation files or to "clone" an activated copy of Windows and install it on another computer. What happens if you upgrade the hardware in your computer? When you activate your copy of Windows 7, a copy of the hardware fingerprint is stored on your hard disk and checked each time you start your computer. If you make substantial changes to your system hardware, you might be required to reactivate your copy of Windows. Because the activation mechanism assumes (mistakenly) that you've tried to install your copy of Windows on a second computer, internet activation might not work. In this case, you'll be required to manually enter a new activation code, which can be obtained from the telephone activation-based support center. For Windows XP, Microsoft published a detailed description of the algorithm it used to determine whether hardware changes were significant enough to require reactivation. For Windows Vista and Windows 7, Microsoft has chosen not to publish those details but has stated that if you replace a defective motherboard, you'll be required to reactivate your copy of Windows. (If you upgrade your PC with a new motherboard, that is considered a new PC and might require a new license.)

Inside Out: Recover your product key

When you install a retail copy of Windows, the product key gets filed away, usually never to be seen again. But you might need to retrieve the product key at some point. If you have Windows 7 installed on multiple computers in your home or office, for example, you might lose track of which product key goes with which computer, resulting in confusion and hassle if you need to reinstall Windows, or if you retire a computer and want to transfer its full (not OEM) Windows license to a new computer. To find out which product key is in use on a given computer, we recommend a wonderful freeware utility called Keyfinder (w7io.com/0213). This application displays the product keys that were used to install any version of Windows or Microsoft Office on a computer.

3. Activation Requirements for OEM Installations

If you purchase a new computer with Windows 7 already installed on it, the licensing procedures are different, as are the rules for activation. In the arcane parlance of Windows, system makers are known as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs. To make matters more confusing, not all OEMs are created equal; instead, they're divided into two classes:

  • Large system builders (Microsoft refers to these firms as named or multinational OEMs or, informally, as royalty OEMs) are allowed to install and preactivate Windows using a technology called System Locked Preinstallation (SLP). The preinstalled copy of Windows (including the recovery disc) contains configuration files that look for specific information in the system BIOS. As long as the BIOS matches, no activation is required. When you purchase a new computer from one of these large companies, a sticker containing a unique product key is affixed to the PC's case, but that key isn't used to activate Windows initially. Instead, the OEM uses a single master key to activate large numbers of computers. If you need to reinstall Windows, you can use the recovery disk provided by the manufacturer and you won't be asked for a product key at all, nor is activation required—as long as you start your computer using the SLP disc on the same computer (or one with the same motherboard/BIOS combination).

  • Smaller firms that build PCs can also preinstall Windows. These OEM copies are called System Builder copies, and they do require activation. The rules of the System Builder program require that the PC manufacturer preinstall Windows using specific tools so that you accept a license agreement and activate the software when you first turn on the PC. In addition, they are required to supply the purchaser with the Windows 7 media (typically a DVD) and affix a product key sticker to the PC's case. If you need to reinstall Windows on this computer, you must enter the product key and go through activation again.

The license agreement for a retail copy of Windows 7 allows you to transfer it to another computer, provided that you completely remove it from the computer on which it was previously installed. An OEM copy, by contrast, is tied to the computer on which it was originally installed. You can reinstall an OEM copy of Windows an unlimited number of times on the same computer. However, you are prohibited by the license agreement from transferring that copy of Windows to another computer.

4. Product Activation and Corporate Licensing

Businesses that purchase licenses in bulk through a Microsoft Volume Licensing (VL) program receive VL media and product keys that require activation under a different set of rules than those that apply to retail or OEM copies. Under the terms of a volume license agreement, each computer with a copy of Windows 7 must have a valid license and must be activated. Under new activation procedures that apply to Windows 7 and Windows Vista, businesses can purchase product keys that allow multiple activations, or they can use Key Management servers to activate computers within their organization.


For more details on Volume Licensing programs for Windows and other Microsoft software, check the Microsoft Volume Licensing home page at microsoft.com/licensing.

2.5.5. Dealing with Product Validation

After you successfully activate your copy of Windows 7, you're still subject to periodic antipiracy checks from Microsoft. This process, called validation, verifies that your copy of Windows has not been tampered with to bypass activation. It also allows Microsoft to undo the activation process for a computer when it determines after the fact that the product key was stolen or used in violation of a volume licensing agreement.

Validation takes two forms: an internal tool that regularly checks licensing and activation files to determine that they haven't been tampered with, and an online tool that restricts access to some downloads and updates.

If your system fails validation, your computer continues to work. However, you'll see some differences: the desktop background changes to black (and if you change it to something else, Windows changes it back to black after one hour), an "activate now" reminder that also tells you your copy of Windows is "Not Genuine" appears on the desktop, and an Activate Now dialog box appears periodically. In addition, your access to Windows Update is somewhat restricted; you won't be able to download optional updates, new drivers, or certain other programs from the Microsoft Download Center until your system passes the validation check.


An unactivated copy of Windows (or one that has failed validation) can still be used. All Windows functions work normally, all your data files are accessible, and all your programs work as expected. The nagging reminders are intended to strongly encourage you to resolve the underlying issue. Some forms of malware can result in damage to system files that has the same effect as tampering with activation files. Another common cause of activation problems is a lazy or dishonest repair technician who installs a stolen or "cracked" copy of Windows 7 instead of using your original licensed copy. Links in the Windows Activation messages lead to online support tools, where you might be able to identify and repair the issue that's affecting your system. Microsoft offers free support for activation issues via online forums as well, with separate forums for enterprise customers (w7io.com/0213) and individuals (w7io.com/0214). Telephone support is also available at no charge.

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