Windows 8 activation & BIOS explained

Updated: April 8, 2013

Recently, a lot of stories cropped across the Web, telling a dreadful tale of many failed Windows 8 activations. The stories reported how users were unable to grab their Windows serial keys, and how their installations failed, because they could not input the serial key anywhere and successfully activate their Windows. Interesting, would you not say?

I looked more deeply into this, and discovered a phenomenon quite like the UEFI thingie. Too much disinformation, caused by the lack of knowledge, wild speculation, and rather popular Microsoft bashing, for the simple reason it is such a convenient target, which does not mean that attention and hatred are not justified, I'm just saying. So let's what gives.


Windows activation process

Microsoft, being an American company, finds it difficult to accept the fact that people worldwide are not willing to pay 200-400 dollars for an operating system license, and instead, resort to what is classified as digital piracy. So using the same logic, how do you combat software piracy? With more software. Just to put things in perspective, in some countries, you can get killed for as little as four hundred dollars, or be contracted to kill others. In other places, people live on less than that for a whole month, and you expect them to pay for a bit of code? Ridiculous. To help people in rich countries really understand the cost of Microsoft software, would you be willing to pay your average national salary to buy a license? For example, pay something like USD5,000 for a copy of Windows, in California? Of course not.

Older activation method

The activation mechanism was introduced in Windows XP, and its main purpose was to deter ordinary, clueless people from installing their operating system on too many boxes. The mechanism was revised several times since, the last one being Windows 8. You no longer get a sticker with the serial key printed on it embedded on your box, you get a somewhat different approach. The serial key is kept in an encrypted form in the BIOS or UEFI, and that's the latest, hot rumor. And now, the concerned users are asking a very legitimate question: will they be able to reinstall Windows?

So how does it work?

Again, it's a two-handshake process. When the machine is configured by the OEM vendor at the manufacturing plant, the Windows is installed, and the correct version and serial are written to the machine BIOS/UEFI firmware. In a way, this creates a tight bond between hardware and software, somewhat like what Apple does with their machines. However, you do not hear the masses accusing the other company of any malpractice by shipping their operating system integrated with the underlying platform.

Anyhow, the preinstalled OEM box comes with Windows, most likely a hidden partition holding a restore image, and it's already activated, with the key stored in the system's firmware. That's it.

And let me emphasize - we are talking OEM boxes with preinstalled Windows. None of this applies to generic hardware, custom machines or any other platform you bought without Microsoft Windows installed. Then, you will need your own copy of Windows, and it becomes no different than any other installation in the past.

What if you need to reinstall?

If you, as a common user must reinstall the system, you will most likely be using the existing machine restore functionality. Or perhaps use the built-in reset/refresh feature. But you will most likely not be imaging or installing fresh from a DVD. So there's no problem, really. Yes, you read it right. No, problem.


Reality check!

Before you start screaming, when I say YOU - I do not mean you, the geek who tampers with systems day and night. I mean the average user. Frankly, the vast majority of Windows users will buy their preinstalled systems and happily use them without any regard to how fast, optimized, beautiful, or useful they are. The only people who really care about these things are advanced users.

For them, the new activation process might be interesting. If you, like me, hate the OEM images, then you will definitely want to clean the slate and start fresh, from scratch, deleting the hidden partition and all the rest of the junk, and performing a pristine installation. This means you will need the installation media - a DVD.

Windows 8 installation media

There are two types of media that you can purchase. You can buy the standard retail upgrade copy of whichever version you fancy, or you can buy the System Builder edition. From what I have read, the upgrade version cannot be installed on a standalone box without a pre-existing Windows installation. Therefore, the more sensible thing is to buy the System Builder edition. So, this means the System Builder software.

But you might be frightened by the OEM acronym that comes with the System Builder. Normally, OEM ties down your installation to specific hardware. Not in this case, though. For the sake of convenience, here's the link to Microsoft Personal Use License (PUL), which explains how it works. Bottom line, you can transfer your installation from one box to another, indefinitely, as long as you keep only one copy running. Like the Highlander movie, there can be only one! Yup.

Windows 8

When you purchase the System Builder edition, you will get the media, plus the serial number, and you will be able to use it to install your Windows wherever you need. Moreover, if your retail version matches the OEM version existing on the machine you bought, the system will reuse the encrypted serial stored in BIOS/UEFI, and you will not have to activate with the new serial. This makes sense. Indeed, this is how it should work, expect that people buying laptops, ultrabooks and whatnot with a preinstalled Windows do not get a physical copy of Windows, which precludes them from running this.

Reinstall process

So now that we know what happens, here's the breakdown of scenarios.

You can also refuse to use Windows 8 on your box, and get a refund, as before. Even Microsoft states this very clearly, so you know this:

If you do not accept and comply with these terms, you may not use the software or features. Instead, you should return it to the retailer or other place where you purchased the software license, for a refund or credit.

What about the existing key?

Another problem is that you may not be able to find your existing product key. Previous versions of Windows displayed the full 25-digit key in your system information panel. Windows 8 uses the credit card format, where the first four blocks are obscured with asterisks, and only the last one is showed.

Having the serial is quite useful, because you might need it for debugging, or if you have to contact Microsoft for support. There are several ways this key can be obtained. Do note the key is bound to your platform, hence the OEM licensing thingie, but you can definitely reuse if you are reinstalling, so you do not waste your other key, which you get with the System Builder edition, for that. After all, you did buy a preinstalled laptop with a Windows license, and you deserve to be able to use it on your box.

Activation help

Retrieve the key

There are several tools you can use to retrieve your product keys. The two free and useful programs that come to mind are Nirsoft ProduKey and Belarc Advisor. You can use them, regardless of the Windows 8 activation mechanism, especially if you need to recover lost software keys. Quite handy, especially if you're about to reinstall. Belarc can do all kinds of audits, and it reports its data in an HTML file. ProduKey is more straightforward, and here's a screenshot.

Nirsoft ProduKey

Now you may notice that the two tools report DIFFERENT keys. My experience shows that ProduKey is more often correct, even though the Control Panel reports the same five digits like Belarc. Still, in the worse case, you will have two guesses.

What history tells us

When Windows activation was introduced back in XP, there was quite a bit of outrage over this practice. People started clamoring, but in the end, nothing dramatic happened. Most users kept running Windows, with a small percentage running into problems, which forced them to phone Microsoft and resolve things manually.

Now, there's a tiny difference. Previously, Windows activation was done in software only, using the machine hardware as a reference. This time, with the OEM Activation 3.0, used in Microsoft Windows 8, there's a tighter integration between the hardware and software, because you need a specific hardware platform to activate your copy of Windows.

However, for most people, this should not be an issue. You will however have to spend more money to get a second copy of Windows to be able to reinstall. In this regard, Windows OEM licensing differs from Apple, because Apple does give you a physical installation media. True, it's a download, but you can burn it and use it.

My personal recommendation

The OEM Activation process refers to OEM hardware - most likely laptops purchased from vendors like Dell, Lenovo, HP, Samsung, or others. These machines will have Windows preinstalled, already activated, and loaded with a hidden restore partition. Take it or leave it. I would say, leave it. If you can, always buy hardware WITHOUT any operating system installed and do the process yourself. This means purchasing a copy of Windows on your own in a retail store. I always do this.

Indeed, if you are buying your own hardware and software, then you will have no problem with activation, keys being stored in BIOS/UEFI, any other fancy methods that may come up, hidden partitions, and other stuff. And you will be able to image your system easily and without any hassle.

Finally, there's no reason why you should use Windows 8 in the first place. It's a failing system, and hardly worth considering as an upgrade for Windows 7, as it brings little, and offers no performance, stability, security, or usability advantages.

More reading

Some articles that may help you digest this:

How the new Windows 8 license terms affect you

Windows 8 new activation method


So there you go. Now, if this article is a little confusing, let me clarify everything in a three-sentence paragraph for those with the short attention span among you. One, this only applies to OEM installations where you do not get any DVD media. This does not apply to self-built, generic or vanilla boxes. Two, the problem may only occur if you really need to reinstall your box from scratch and not use the existing hidden partition or the refresh/reset option in Windows 8. Three, if you decide to install on your own, you will have to buy additional media, like the System Builder edition, but your BIOS/UEFI will retain the existing serial and reuse it for the subsequent activation. This way, you end up with a spare product key for an additional physical installation if you need since you just purchased an extra license; alternatively, in the worst case, you will have to use the System Builder key and waste a license, but that's what happens when you buy OEM hardware.

That's all really. For most people, this is no different than all the previous Microsoft anti-piracy schemes, including the original activation in Windows XP, Genuine Advantage and all the other equally unsuccessful methods. Since the vast majority of people run their boxes as they are, and never reinstall, the activation becomes a non-issue. Only geeks and gamers might be harmed, but they are a niche, and they know how to handle problems of this kind. And the handling means, worst scenario, giving more money to Microsoft. Your choice, lads.

The cockpit & joystick image is in public domain.


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