It’s official: upgrade hack included in Vista SP1

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

The new Service Pack 1 version of Windows Vista allows end users to purchase the “upgrade edition” and install it on any PC — with no need to purchase the more expensive “full edition.”

The same behavior was present when Vista was originally released, but the fact that the trick wasn’t removed from SP1 suggests that Microsoft executives approved the back door as a way to make the price of Vista more appealing to sophisticated buyers.

Previous Windows version not needed for upgrade

Just after Vista was first released to consumers on Jan. 30, 2007, an article in the Windows Secrets Newsletter explained that the upgrade edition of the operating system could be installed on a “clean” hard drive. For whatever reason, Vista had been programmed to accept itself as a “qualifying product.” This eliminated any need for users to purchase the full edition of Vista or to upgrade Vista only over an older instance of Windows.

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The Feb. 1, 2007, article by Windows Secrets editorial director Brian Livingston explained that the procedure is supported by several built-in dialog boxes. This indicates that the trick had been deliberately included by Vista’s developers.

To boost the sales of retail packages, Microsoft announced just over one month ago significant price cuts in Vista, beginning with Service Pack 1. The savings over the old prices vary among different Vista versions, such as Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate. In the U.S., the list price of the upgrade edition is at least $100 cheaper than the full edition. Smaller savings exist in other markets, such as Canada and the European Union, as shown in the table below.

The price reductions on the Service Pack 1 version of Vista are even more significant because the upgrade trick still works in SP1, rendering unnecessary the purchase of Vista’s full edition.

Shortly after the hidden upgrade method was published, Microsoft officials publicly stated that the procedure would violate Vista’s end-user license agreement. Section 13 of the Vista EULA (PDF version) says, “To use upgrade software, you must first be licensed for the software that is eligible for the upgrade.”

“We believe only a very small percentage of people will take the time to implement this workaround, and we encourage all customers to follow our official guidelines for upgrading to Windows Vista, which can be found at WindowsVista.com, instead,” said a Microsoft press representative quoted in a News.com article on Feb. 14, 2007. “Following these guidelines will allow customers to easily and validly upgrade to Windows Vista,” he continued.

Since that time, of course, Microsoft has had over one year to remove the upgrade back door before releasing the SP1 version of Vista. Livingston believes that the company must have consciously decided not to do so.

“The fact that the upgrade edition will still upgrade over itself in Vista SP1 proves that Microsoft executives knowingly support the upgrade trick,” he says. “I think the feature was deliberately included to make it unnecessary for more advanced and price-sensitive users to ever buy the full version. There is no ethical dilemma with people using a feature that Microsoft has specifically programmed into Vista.”

Ironically, the original release of Vista’s upgrade edition was disappointing to many consumers. They’d been told by Microsoft that the Vista upgrade process would no longer accept the insertion of a disc containing an older version of Windows as proof that Vista was upgrading over a qualifying product.

Instead, users heard from Microsoft that the Vista upgrade procedure must be launched while a copy of Windows 2000 or XP was actually running. The upgrade trick that Vista developers included, however, renders that requirement moot. A Vista upgrade disc will install and activate properly even on a blank hard drive that has never previously been used.

Installing software from an original distribution disc to an empty hard drive, which is called a “clean install,” is a best practice recommended by security organizations, such as NIST and US-CERT. Vista, unlike XP and previous Windows versions, doesn’t make a clean install easy.

The original Windows Secrets article contains step-by-step instructions on upgrading Vista in this way. In a nutshell, the procedure involves booting a PC from the Vista upgrade DVD. Next, a clean install is performed without the user entering the disc’s product key or downloading any patches.

Once this unactivated, trial version of Vista is running, the setup program is launched again — this time from within Vista. At this point, the “upgrade” option is selected, the product key is entered, and Vista can be activated exactly like the full edition of the product.

Upgrading Vista on a clean machine works in SP1

Once Microsoft released the SP1 version of Vista, I tested the upgrade trick again to see whether the company had removed the feature. I used an upgrade disc of Vista Ultimate SP1 that I’d ordered at retail from Amazon.com.

I repeated the original steps and found they work just as well on the SP1 version of Vista as they did on the old version.

For PC users who are thinking about installing Windows Vista, the upgrade technique has even more value than it did last year. There are two reasons:

1. Quality. Vista SP1 is arguably a better product than the old, gold version of the operating system. SP1 includes 551 bug fixes, according to a white paper available from a Microsoft.com download page. The company claims in a press release that SP1 addresses security, reliability, and performance concerns with the older version of Vista.

2. Price. Whether or not you believe Vista was overpriced before, it’s clearly a less-expensive product now than it was a year ago. As reported by Computerworld, the price cuts range from zero to 47%, depending on the country and the version of Vista.

Table 1, below, shows that the upgrade edition of Vista is always cheaper than the full edition of the same version (Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate.) The figures are based on documents provided to Windows Secrets by Microsoft’s public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom.

The following table shows Microsoft’s new suggested list prices and the percentage reduction from Vista’s original prices. Street prices for Vista SP1 currently average about 10% less than suggested retail.

Table 1. New Vista SP1 list prices and percentage reductions from the originals.

United States (in U.S. dollars)
Full edition
Upgrade edition
Vista Home Premium
$ 239 (    0%)
$ 130 (–19%)
Vista Business
$ 299 (    0%)
$ 199 (    0%)
Vista Ultimate
$ 320 (–20%)
$ 220 (–15%)


Canada (in Canadian dollars)
Full edition
Upgrade edition
Vista Home Premium
C$ 206 (–26%)
C$ 113 (–26%)
Vista Business
C$ 253 (–27%)
C$ 233 (    0%)
Vista Ultimate
C$ 263 (–27%)
C$ 243 (  –1%)


United Kingdom (in pounds)
Full edition
Upgrade edition
Vista Home Premium
£ 103 (–27%)
£   50 (–47%)
Vista Business
£ 127 (–27%)
£ 117 (    0%)
Vista Ultimate
£ 132 (–44%)
£ 122 (–21%)


Euro Zone (in euros)
Full edition
Upgrade edition
Vista Home Premium
€ 147 (–34%)
€   81 (–46%)
Vista Business
€ 201 (–28%)
€ 187 (    0%)
Vista Ultimate
€ 208 (–44%)
€ 194 (–21%)


Vista upgrading over itself is no accident

After all the publicity, the fact that the upgrade back door is still present in Vista SP1 is a strong indication that the feature has at least the tacit support of Microsoft officials. Indeed, the upgrade label on Vista retail packages, then and now, states that a “clean install may be required.”

There’s no question that users who own a license for Windows 2000 or XP can legitimately save time and money by buying the upgrade edition of Vista and not having to first install the older operating system on a PC.

Although a clean install of Vista’s upgrade edition — without any prior purchase of 2000 or XP — may violate the Vista license, the result is clearly an installed copy of Vista that is indistinguishable from a full edition.

The upgrade edition’s lower cost, Microsoft’s overall price cuts for Vista, and the fact that Service Pack 1 need not be downloaded and installed separately make Vista SP1 a somewhat better value for users who didn’t buy the OS earlier.

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Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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