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I have a computer with (presumably unlicensed) Windows XP.

The activation (over the internet) failed, and I now I cannot get into Windows.

After calling Microsoft, it seems like I will have to reinstall everything and install a freshly bought operating system.

What are my options here? Is it worth trying the millions of keys and key generators out there?

EDIT: I have no way of contacting the manufacturer (it's a no-name box, definitely not Dell, HP or IBM). Would there actually be a key supplied with my version of XP? If its not genuine, wouldnt I just have any old key? And that key would fail activation any way?

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migrated from May 4 '10 at 13:45

This question came from our site for system and network administrators.

Please stay away from key generators. I list 2 possible legal options below. – kmarsh May 4 '10 at 12:36
@user, too bad, but give the Nirsoft product a try. – kmarsh May 4 '10 at 12:40
Key generators-Perfect place to keep your wide selection of malware. Stay away. – Dave M May 4 '10 at 12:40
Asking about keygens here is not going to get you a favorable response. Have you tried the automated phone activation system, is that what you meant by calling MS? – Dan May 4 '10 at 12:42
@Dave M - you got that right. Recovering the original key, if possible, and using it demonstrates that the possessing user is doing everything possible to stay within their license rights. If the selling license holder or repair shop duplicated a license, it is their fault, not the possessing user. – kmarsh May 4 '10 at 12:42

It's really simple - if you have a "Certificate of Authenticity" either stuck to the case or with the discs, then Microsoft will always (in my experience anyway) activate windows. If they refuse then morally and probably legally (I'm talking about a court of law not what MS's license may say) you are fine to install Windows in whatever way you can.

If not, unless you are the statistical anomaly one in a thousand that has legitimately lost the serial, then you have a pirate copy of Windows and MS are quite rightly not going to help.

If you don't have the serial/key and you are not the original purchaser no software company will ever help you.

As suggested you may be able to use a Nisoft or Magical jelly bean Windows key recoverer, perhaps from a boot disc or safe mode - call Microsoft with this and at least they will able to tell you if it is legit - if so they will help you.

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+1 for Magical jelly bean. That is another option, which is what the OP was asking for, options. – kmarsh May 4 '10 at 20:15

What did Microsoft tell you? If they already told you that you don't have a license a keygen is not going to resolve that issue. I suspect they told you to get a license and reinstall because there is no reason to believe the install you have is actually genuine windows. I've seen several legit looking CDs that come pre-rootkitted

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Not sure why the downvote. Answer makes perfect sense. – Dave M May 4 '10 at 12:39
Maybe it is because you presented no options, which is the first question. – kmarsh May 4 '10 at 12:43

There are Windows Key recovery programs. Sometimes they even work. They are worth a try.

I have used Nirsoft's with some success.

If the computer is from a large manufacturer like Dell or HP, Windows may be keyed to the BIOS instead of a consumer activation. Moving the windows install disk to another motherboard will invalidate this install and key recovery won't work.

If the motherboard is still HP or Dell, your best bet is to call them and ask for reinstallation media, which is usually a fraction of the cost of a new Windows disk. The last time I got one from Dell, it took 2.5 hours on the phone to convince them that a.) such a product existed, and b.) I didn't need to pay for product support to get in the right phone queue just to order it.

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I have never heard of a key being stored in a system BIOS. Maybe you are thinking of OEM, or pre-pidded installations? – Dan May 4 '10 at 12:44
recovering the key won't help you if the key isn't yours... – Jim B May 4 '10 at 13:00
@Chris - surely the key is on the disc, it just looks for Dell hardware? – Jon Rhoades May 4 '10 at 13:02
@Jim There is no way of telling whether the key is yours or not, unless you can verify if the seller of the system has or has not duplicated the key. Even if they had, you can make a good case that YOU have the valid key and he has the duplicate. Either way it still solves the problem of getting the XP working again, without resorting to illegal and risky key generators. – kmarsh May 4 '10 at 13:05
@kmarsh- there is a way to tell if the key is yours- you look at the COA that has the key you used on it. In addition it's safe to assume that when activateing over the phone microsoft took a look at the key and said "no-not with that key" For those that have a preactivated copy of wandows and want to reinstall you need to follow the steps here: Those COA keys will not activate online ever, however you could activate those COA keys by calling microsoft- in this case it's a white box and preactivation isn't possible – Jim B May 4 '10 at 16:47

What are my options here?

If you just want a machine that works and do not care if its a Windows machine, then download Ubuntu Linux. If you havent tried it before, give it a shot. The install is easy, but it will erase everything on your drive.

If there are files that you need to save, then the Ubuntu Live CD will let you retrieve those before performing the install.


Buy a legit copy of XP and install it.

I would not recommend keygens or anything that isnt legal. You are asking for malware issues on the machine used to download the keygen.

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Right, but key recovery is not keygen. – kmarsh May 4 '10 at 13:06
I wouldnt be so sure this is a legit install in the first place...sounds like either a homemade machine or one one that was built in the back of a computer store. I have never had a Windows install erroneously think it wasnt valid. I know it happens, but of the probably thousands of installs I have done...never had the first problem. – user5195 May 4 '10 at 13:44

Try the new Ubuntu 10.04! It is free to download and install, perfectly legal. No activation code needed and it will always be genuine.

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