Windows XP Activation Explained

This article explains how Windows Activation works and how much changes to your system you can do before Microsoft considers your computer a new system.

What is Microsoft Product Activation?
WPA is the licence that Microsoft uses that limits an install of a Microsoft product such as Windows XP. This would stop you from using your copy of Windows XP you used on your desktop to also work on your laptop.

Windows XP will generally remind you to activate your copy of windows about 30 days after installation (most common with Windows XP Home). This involves your computer contacting Microsoft and giving them some information about the current hardware you have installed. This returns a release code which will be recorded on your system.

Every time your system boots, Windows checks to see if it is still installed on the same hardware. If the hardware doesn’t match you will be unable to do much more than backup your files until you call Microsoft that your system broke down, had to be rebuilt and thus have to get a new release code off them.

What hardware does Windows check?
The system checks these ten categories of hardware:

  • Display Adapter
  • SCSI Adapter
  • IDE Adapter (effectively the motherboard)
  • Network Adapter (NIC) and its MAC Address
  • RAM Amount Range (i.e., 0-64mb, 64-128mb, etc.)
  • Processor Type
  • Processor Serial Number
  • Hard Drive Device
  • Hard Drive Volume Serial Number (VSN)
  • CD-ROM / CD-RW / DVD-ROM

Windows XP then creates and records a number based on the first device of each type that was found during the setup and stores this number on your harddrive. When setting up, this gets sent to Microsoft with the product ID.

Even if you do a complete format the Windows activation center will be contacted again because this information doesnt exist on the computer itself and if the hardware is mostly the same then this can be done by an automated call without you having to speak to anyone.

How much hardware can I change before I have to reactivate?
The way WPA works is it asks for ‘votes’ from each of the ten categories listed above. It ‘polls’ the hardware to see if its still there or was ever there and if 7 “yes, I am here and unchanged” votes come in everything will function normally.
If you change any hardware in any category then you will lose that “yes vote” but will not lose any more votes thereafter if you keep changing that same type of hardware. For example you can replace the video card as much as you like because once its been changed once the vote is already lost. Some hardware such as soundcards dont count as a vote at all, however other cards such as your NIC card counts for 3 votes so if you keep your NIC, CPU, Motherboard and ram the same you can change anything else as much as you like.

If should be noted that if you disable any hardware such as the NIC that this counts as a No vote and if it brings the votes under 7 yes votes then you will be asked to reactivate your Windows.

What if I make too many hardware changes to my PC?
In the original copies of Windows XP when you started up your system it would only allow you to boot into Safe Mode where you will be required to call Microsofts activation center to aquire a new code.

Working with Windows Activation on the job:
To activate Windows XP manually, you can goto Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Activate Windows.

You can also goto Start > Run and type “oobe/msoobe /a” without the quotes (for the record, msoobe stands for “Microsoft Out of Box Experience”).

If you are doing a repair install of Windows XP on the same computer, you can backup the current activation status by going to c:\Windows\System32\ and backing up the wpa.dbl file (assuming your windows is installed at c:\windows. If not, change accordingly).

Once you have completed your repair install boot into minimal safe mode. Go back to the C:\Windows\System32 folder. Rename the existing wpa.dbl that is already there to wpa.noact. Copy the wpa.dbl you backed up to the System32 folder and reboot your system.

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Bryce Whitty

About the Author

Bryce Whitty
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Bryce is an Australian computer technician and the founder of Technibble. He started his computer repair business when he was 17 years old and is still running it 9 years later. He is an avid traveller and spends at least a month of the year in another country.

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