Vista Activation Strikes Again - Time to Fight Back


Vista Hardware Activation Fears Realized - Big Time

People have been concerned about how Windows Vista would cope with new hardware for a long time now. Our own Will Smith wrote about it a year ago . Although Microsoft quickly adjusted its licensing terms before releasing Windows Vista in its final form to help assuage concerns from hardware experimenters (that's us, folks!) worried about being locked out of our Windows Vista installations - it's happening anyway.

Device Driver Changes Look Like Hardware Changes to Vista

Tuesday, Vista user James Bannan, writing for Australia's website, confirmed any hardware maven's worst fears: not only would Microsoft Vista deactivate after giving only three days notice, but device driver changes could trigger deactivation!

Before you suspect Bannan of going on an update spree that left nothing but the chassis, consider this: the last hardware change he'd made was swapping his DirectX 9 graphics card for a DX10 card. So, what triggered the three days to RFM mode (which leaves you with a web browser that works for a half-hour)? A driver change!

Although Windows Vista believed that Bannan had changed his disk controller, which, when added to the graphics card change, was significant enough in Microsoft's mind to trigger deactivation, he hadn't. He'd updated the Intel Matrix Storage Manager program, which is used on Intel motherboards that feature RAID-compatible I/O controller hub (South Bridge) chips. Essentially, the driver change was mistaken for a hardware change.

A Happy Ending - But Only for Some

Bannan was able to reactivate his copy of Vista, but had to use the telephone to do it. Of the over 90 replies to this story, others had much unhappier outcomes:

To learn how to avoid these problems, keep reading.

Vista Activation is Broken - So How Can You Avoid Breaking Your Copy of Vista?

Clearly, Microsoft's Vista Activation feature is broken. That's all there is to it. Being unable to distinguish driver updates, BIOS updates, or BIOS setting changes from hardware updates is absolutely unacceptable. It's one of the biggest barriers to Windows Vista acceptance - and it doesn't even work to stop piracy. There are plenty of sources for pirated Vista copies, and some users, fearful of being locked out of their systems, have even purchased legal copies but installed pirated versions that don't have activation issues.

Here are some better ideas that won't get you in trouble at home or at the office:

  • 1. If you're installing Vista on an existing system, do your upgrades first. Upgrade the BIOS (only if you need to), the video card, the RAM, etc. - then upgrade to Windows Vista. Use the Microsoft Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor to find out if you need driver updates or hardware updates to run your preferred flavor of Windows Vista, and download those drivers before you install Windows Vista. You can run the Vista upgrade advisor from the Windows Vista DVD or download it from the Microsoft website.
  • 2. Don't get in a hurry to activate Windows Vista after installation, especially if you still have upgrades to perform. You have 30 days after installation before you need to activate it. Use that time wisely to make sure you have: installed the best drivers for your hardware - configured your system BIOS in the most suitable manner - performed a BIOS upgrade - if it's really needed. Remember, once you activate Windows Vista, you've 'locked in' your system configuration. And, if you change it enough, you might need to reactivate it.
  • 3. When you see the reactivation notification, don't mess around: do it now! It's easy to blow off a "3 days to reactivate" message, but if you keep doing it, you'll eventually wind up with nothing but a web browser (the so-called RFM 'reduced functionality mode') until you contact Microsoft to reactivate. If you take action during the countdown period, you can usually use the Internet to reactivate, but if you wait until the reminder period ends, you're stuck using the telephone.
  • 4. If you like to experiment with different operating systems, use a different hard disk for each one instead of nuking your only drive and reactivating Vista each time you install it. You can grab 250GB or larger desktop ATA or SATA hard disks for less than $80 each, and if you leave the side of your case off (or use a case with a quick-change drive cage), it's easy to swap drives in and out.
  • 5. As an alternative to reinstallation if you have only one hard disk, create a disk image after you activate Windows Vista. Restore the image when you need to, using a program like Norton Ghost , Acronis TrueImage , and so forth. You can store the image to an external USB hard disk or a hidden ("secure") hard disk partition (as discussed in this Microsoft forum thread).
  • 6. Decide which way you prefer to get driver updates: via Windows Update or from the vendor - and stick with it. James Bannan suggests that replacing a driver updated through Windows Update with a vendor-supplied driver might increase the chances of triggering the need to reactivate Windows. If you prefer vendor-supplied drivers because they often provide more features, make sure you configure Windows Update to check for updates, rather than installing them automatically. When Windows Update lists a driver update, note the driver being offered, hide the update, and go to the vendor's website instead for the drivers you need.
  • 7. Complain to Microsoft every time you have a problem with reactivation. The Microsoft Windows Vista Validation Issues forum is a good place to start. Remind Microsoft that you paid good money for Vista and you don't like this kind of treatment.
  • Users to Microsoft: "We're Not Criminals!"

    Microsoft needs to stop treating users who have paid hundreds of dollars for Windows Vista upgrades - and hundreds or thousands of dollars for new computers with Vista - like criminals. Right now Windows Vista activation is punishing legitimate computer users who like to experiment and upgrade their systems while doing nothing to stop piracy.
    Microsoft needs to understand that it could sell a lot more copies of Windows Vista if it didn't jerk users around like this. Let's hope - and work hard to help - Redmond get the message.

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