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Bumpy Windows 10 activation

It’s been months I was thinking about a way to upgrade my parents’ computer to Windows 10. The machine was running a copy of Windows 7 that failed to activate so required a crack. I wanted to both upgrade to Windows 10 and get it a fully activated genuine copy. However, the machine was four year old, so a bit worthless to pay more than 150$ to get a OEM Windows on it, that cannot be transferred to another PC. I thus put this thing off, since the computer was working correctly.

However, during summer 2019, I was forced to figure something out, because in January 2020, Windows 7 will be out of life (no more support and security updates), and the software program my mother was using for her taxes, ImpôtRapide, was discontinuing support for Windows 7 as well. So we needed a solution. Without my help, my parents would have been stuck going at a computer store that would be likely to tell them they are sorry, but it’s worthless to install Windows 10 and would be better (for their cash flow…) to purchase a new computer. They have some at 400$. Yeah, likely to get a uselessly slow laptop with a small hard drive. My sister got caught this way. Her old laptop on which I replaced the hard drive with a SSD is faster than her new one!

I thought about two possibilities to solve the Windows 10 issue:

  1. Pay 150$ for the OEM copy from Microsoft. It would have worked, but if the computer broke a couple of months later, we would need, in addition to the new computer, a new OEM copy!
  2. Convince my parents to buy a new computer with Windows 10 preinstalled. This would have been far simpler for me but more costly for them. My mother told me some day she would like a laptop to transfer photos on my grandmother’s digital frame. But finding a good laptop requires time. It is easy to end up with something slow, overbloated with crapware and difficult to upgrade.

But in June 2019, I found a third possibility: Kinguin, a website offering product keys for Windows, Office and several Steam games. There was a risk to get a key that would not activate, even worse, a completely non-working key, but if it works, it would cost 40$ for each key. I took the plunge on Sunday, July 14 2019, and purchased both keys. It would have been smarter to purchase just the Windows key and try it first, but I wanted to have both keys at the time I was at my parents’ place.

Preparation

Before attempting the installation, I used Clonezilla to make a full backup copy of the SSD that would be formated. The disk contained Windows 7 and a few programs. In case of a total and catastrophic failure, such as non-working activation causing repeated errors or an unexpected but super shocking hardware incompatibility, it would be possible to restore Windows 7 in less than half an hour, as opposed to fully reinstall it. Of course, that would have been temporary; a new attempt at installing Windows 10 would have been needed later.

Even that operation sucked and caused issues, because for some reasons, the USB stick Clonezilla is installed on gets corrupted (this happened at least three times since I started using Clonezilla, most likely because of flaky USB keys, not the program itself) and some programs fail to load. The image checking program failed, causing errors saying the images were broken. I had to reformat the stick and reinstall Clonezilla on it with Tuxboot, then try again. Second time, Clonezilla was reporting the images to be fully restorable.

I was expecting the new installation to be fully UEFI compliant as opposed to the Windows 7 setup for which I needed to fall back on BIOS/MBR because of the crack used for the activation. I wanted no trace of the MBR at all and wasn’t sure Windows would remove it, so I booted the machine using a USB key containing Ubuntu MATE, and used GParted to create a new GUID Partition Table (GPT). That pretty much destroyed all the data on the SSD.

Installation but no activation

After the preparation, I successfully booted another USB key, that one containing the installation medium of Windows 10 I just recreated a couple of days ago; there is now a free tool from Microsft allowing that. That contained the latest updates, so no ever-lasting installation of updates like in Windows 7. The boot happened correctly, in UEFI mode. To make sure the USB key booted in UEFI, I pressed F8 at computer startup to get the boot menu and picked the UEFI entry of the USB key. I was then able to proceed with the installation, and the product key from Kinguin worked without any issue. It was shipped as a scanned or pictured sticker with the key written on it. Using my laptop, I displayed the image and zoomed in until I could see the 25 characters and typed them.

After the installation completed without issues, I was required to login with a Microsoft account. My mother wanted to use the email address provided by her ISP so I tried that. The system was saying she already had an account. I didn’t know she has a Microsoft account. Fortunately, she managed to remember the password and we could connect it to the new Windows 10 installation, so no need to create a new account with a Microsoft email address or attempt a password recovery.

Then I tried to install the drivers. The Intel graphics driver from ASUS failed to install. I then figured out that all devices were working and decided not to try installing the drivers. Graphic was OK, audio was working, network as well, except maybe a quite slow Internet connection. At the time of writing this post, I was starting to question myself: maybe I should have installed the Ethernet driver.

Then came the dreadful part: is that new installation activated? In order to determine that, I pressed the Windows and Pause keys simultaneously to access system properties, searched a bit, and found, at the bottom, a message saying that Windows was not activated. Oups! I found out a button to Activate, clicked, was offered to activate by Internet or by phone, naively tried the Internet activation, and that failed. A concerning error message was stating that the key may be used on another PC. Aouch! The system was then proposing to purchase a key on the Windows store.

I was kind of stuck, not knowing what to try next, and forum posts I found on Google didn’t help at all. One I found was stating that Kinguin keys are from volume licenses; they may work, they may not, they may work for some time or not. Ah! No!

In order to evaluate the extents of our losses, I tried to install Microsoft’s Office 2016. For this, I used my mother’s Microsoft account to log in to Office website and found an option to enter a product key. That time, it was possible to just copy/paste the product key. That got me a download link for Office 2016. I downloaded the program and installed it. I don’t remember if I had to copy/paste the key again at the installation program, but what I remind is that the installation was awfully long. Something seems to be throttling my parents’ Internet connection, maybe Videotron because my parents chose a lower end plan, I’m not sure. Anyhow, the installation succeeded, but activation, again, failed.

The pain of the phone-based activation

Next step was to try to activate by phone, before contacting Kinguin. I thus restarted the Windows activation wizard, and selected the option to activate by phone. I was asked for my country, and given a phone number. I first entered into an automated system asking me if I already activated Windows, if I replaced some hardware, etc., but no matter what I picked, I ended up at an operator. I had to identify myself to her: name, phone number, email address. Then I needed to provide the product key. This was a long and painful process, as the phone line or my parents’ handheld phone were causing sound issues. I had to repeat several parts of the 25-character sequence. But that ended and she got the whole thing checked. It was an OEM key, used by sellers like Lenovo, HP, etc., but the key was valid and usable! Phew! But it would need a phone-based activation.

That procedure consists of stating the installation ID, which is split into 8 groups of six digits. The operator had me utter and confirm the digits, then despite my doubt about the correct communication of that awfully long sequence, we tried to generate the confirmation code that I entered into the second page. That one is also a long sequence of digits split into groups. I used the keypad to directly type the digits into the fields, no pen and paper for that! Then expecting a long revision process, I clicked on Activate and got the thing activated. YEAH!

After a small break, a couple of glasses of water, and a short walk, I came back at the computer for the second part: Office. That one was pretty much the same principle, with different challenges. I again needed to pick a country, then got a phone number. This time, the system was fully automated. My past experience with automatic speech recognition told me that errors are perfectly possible, so I took care of speaking as clearly as possible while dictating the installation identifier, again a sequence of numbers. The confirmation code given as the response was uttered relatively fast, so I had to be careful not to miss any number. The keypad was essential to get this done flawlessly. After I entered the whole confirmation code, I tried to click the button to activate and that worked!

Both Windows 10 and Office 2016 were now activated!

After this installation and bumpy activation succeeded, I created a second Clonezilla image. If something bad causes the installation to be corrupted in the future, it will be easy to restore it from the image without having to reinstall and reactivate.

Various small problems

When my mother tried to access her Facebook account, she got a completely different UI with no access to games. This was because Chrome opened m.facebook.com instead of facebook.com. After that, the games took a long time to load and one of them failed, but this was caused by connection issues, not Windows 10.

There was also a strange issue with the Volume icon in the notification area. The icon just disappeared the day after the installation of Windows 10. I searched for a while to figure out how to solve this. There is an option to disable system icons: all system icons were enabled, including Volume. There is a group policy to disable the icon; it was turned off. The solution was to unlock the task bar, expand it to use two rows, then the icon showed up. Coming back at one row, the icon stayed visible.

Fonts are small than on Windows 7. I thought I was getting crazy or loosing sight because of too much time spend in front of my computer, but no, my mother also found characters to be smaller than before. We searched and searched, no way to enlarge them, besides changing the DPI scaling. But bumping up the DPI causes her Scrabble game not to fully show up on the screen. Part of the problem is the too small screen, running in 1440×900 as opposed to a full HD 1920×1080 display.

I suspect the installation, besides activation, was too smooth. Like with my own systems, problems will happen after the fact. Hopefully, things will not be too bad, but we don’t know.