Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How to activate Windows 10 after a hardware change

This post will explain how to reactivate a copy of Windows 10 after a hardware change without purchasing a new Win10 key or losing your current Windows installation. At the time of writing, other sources on this topic are incomplete or incorrect. That includes Microsoft's official support forums and phone service.

About 6 months ago I upgraded from Windows 7 Pro to Windows 10 Pro. Things went pretty smoothly and my largest complaint (which remains to this day) is that the calculator app does not claim focus when launched from a keyboard shortcut. Last weekend I decided to upgrade my computer hardware. This created a huge hassle when Win10 decided that it, as software, was no longer activated because hardware had changed.

I expected reactivation to be a simple matter of dropping into the setup app and activating online again. This is not the case. Since, like most people, I am using a copy of Win10 that originated as an update from a copy of Win7, this was not allowed.

Contacting Microsoft support was not helpful. I spoke with multiple employees up the chain of command. If you are in this situation, do not waste your time by calling. They will only suggest two courses of action:
  • Buy a new Windows 10 license.
  • Wipe out your hard drive and reinstall Windows 7. Then upgrade again to Windows 10.

For obvious reasons, neither of those options is acceptable.

Through this ordeal I was able to learn that Microsoft's activation system considers your motherboard to be your computer and your license key to be intrinsically tied to it. On the other hand, it really doesn't care which hard drive the Windows software is located on.

The fix leverages these two facts:
  1. Connect an old hard drive. Let's call it H: drive for 'upgrade hack'. (Alternatives for those lacking a spare drive include creating a drive partition or using an external device.)
  2. Disconnect your other hard drives.
  3. Install Win7 on H: drive.
  4. Upgrade Win7 to Win10 on H: drive.
  5. Activate the Win10 installation on H: drive.
  6. Disconnect H: drive.
  7. Reconnect your other hard drives.
Your existing Windows 10 installation will now consider itself activated.

Pro tip: shutdown the computer when making hardware changes.

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