| By Brian Livingston |
It’s widely assumed that a newly installed copy of Windows Vista must be "activated" before 30 days are up.
But Microsoft has built into Vista a simple, one-line command that anyone can use to extend the activation deadline of the product to a total of 120 days — almost four full months!
How to extend the Vista activation deadline
The concept of "activation" has become familiar to computer users ever since Microsoft introduced it into the licensing for Windows XP.
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After installing Windows, you have a 30-day "trial period" to either activate the product or let it lose some functionality. You can activate XP or Vista by allowing the software to contact Microsoft’s servers via your Internet connection. Or, if you’re paranoid about an automated session of this kind, you can call a phone number in various countries to receive a code to enter on your keyboard.
An activated copy of Windows is “locked” to the specific configuration that was present at activation time — motherboard, hard drive, and so forth. Changing several components, such as during a hardware upgrade, can cause Windows to complain, saying it requires reactivation.
Microsoft seems to be liberal about providing new activation codes to anyone who calls the telephone number and provides a plausible explanation. (My hard disk needed replacing, etc.) Don’t be afraid to try calling if a copy of Windows ever needs reactivation.
All versions of Vista allow a 30-day period without activation (except the corporate-oriented Vista Enterprise, which supports only a 3-day trial). If you know the secret, however, you can extend the activation deadline of editions such as Vista Home Premium and Vista Business up to four months past the original install date.
| UPDATE 2009-08-20: In his Aug. 20, 2009, Top Story, contributing editor Woody Leonhard describes how to use the same technique to extend the Windows 7 trial period to as many as 120 days.|
Microsoft provides a command-line program in Vista known as the Software Licensing Manager (SLMGR) or slmgr.vbs.This is a Visual Basic script that resides in c:windowssystem32. You can read the contents of this script file with any text editor or a professional development environment.
Among other things, slmgr.vbs has a function that pushes Vista’s activation deadline out to 30 days from the date the command is run. From the Vista desktop, take the following steps on a machine on which Vista hasn’t yet been activated:
Step 1. Open a command window with admin privileges. Click Vista’s start button and type cmd into the Search box. Rather than pressing Enter, instead press Ctrl+Shift+Enter to open the command window with elevated privileges. If you’re asked for a username and password, provide the ones that log you into your domain. On a single-user copy of Vista, a login shouldn’t be necessary. (My thanks to Serdar Yegulalp for the elevation trick.).
Step 2. Switch to the command-line shell handler. Running script commands in a window will result in irritating pop-up messages unless you change to the character-mode version of Windows Script Host. To do this, enter the following command at the prompt:
Step 3. Familiarize yourself with SLMGR. Executed with no parameters, slmgr displays a screen of help text. With the parameters -dli (display license information) or -xpr (expiration), the program displays the activation deadline, either in minutes remaining or as a date and time, respectively.
To see the effect of these commands, enter the following in the command window, one at a time:
If you’ve just installed Vista, the activation deadline will be 43,200 minutes in the future, which translates to 30 days. If Vista was installed some time ago, the remaining time shown will be less.
In my testing, each command required quite a long time to provide a response — as much as one minute. Be patient and wait for the results from each command before trying the next. If you didn’t elevate your command window to have admin privileges in Step 1, you’ll see only error messages.
Step 4. Extend Vista’s activation deadline. The parameter -rearm changes the activation deadline to 30 days from today. SLMGR allows this extension to take place only three times. If you extend the deadline the day after you install Vista, you’ll get an extension of only one day, not an additional 30 days.
The following command changes the activation deadline to 30 days after the command is invoked:
If the operation worked, you should see the message, “Command completed successfully. Please restart the system for the changes to take effect.”
It’s not clear where SLMGR stores the number of times that it’s been used to push the activation deadline back. If this number is stored in the Registry or in a system file, it’s likely that hackers will quickly find a way to eliminate even the three-extension limit.
Step 5. Reboot and test. A reboot is required to make the extension take effect. After the Vista desktop loads, you should repeat steps 1 and 3 to check on your new activation deadline.
The 120-day extension trick shouldn’t be confused with the Vista clean-install trick that I described in my Feb. 1 article. That procedure, which Microsoft also hard-coded into Vista, enables anyone to install the “upgrade” version of Vista over any running copy of Windows, even a just-clean-installed copy of Vista itself.
Microsoft’s developers reportedly programmed the Vista upgrade process to test that it’s running on any version of the OS — not just Windows XP, 2000, and other qualifying products — to make the coding process simpler.
Why does Microsoft allow 120-day extensions?
After my Vista clean-install article was published, a few readers asked whether I shouldn’t keep quiet about procedures like these. After all, as I myself stated in my article, installing the upgrade version of Vista on a clean hard drive might violate Microsoft’s EULA (End-User License Agreement).
First, and most importantly, I’m a journalist. If something is true about Windows, and it’s important for Windows users to know, I’m going to describe it for you as accurately as I can. Many sites on the Web are currently giving out half-baked explanations of Vista’s clean-install feature. I want you to at least have the right info. I’d never publish a technique for a zero-day virus attack. But describing a known feature of Windows that Microsoft built into the product isn’t comparable in any way to releasing viruses.
Second, the fact is that Microsoft itself is writing these features into Vista. If the Redmond company doesn’t want people to clean-install Vista or extend Vista’s activation deadline, a couple of lines of code would quickly eliminate these features.
Instead of leaving them out, Microsoft has deliberately programmed into Vista several back-door features that journalists are certain to find and publicize. These aren’t hacks that require brain surgery on Windows. They’re capabilities that have been specifically added into the operating system in ways that are easy for any Windows buyer to use.
There are only three explanations I can think of for Microsoft to include these kinds of back doors in Vista:
• The Windows development process is out of control and individual programmers are inserting any procedures they like that will make Vista a little more convenient for them;
• Microsoft executives believe that allowing clean installs of Vista and 120-day activation extensions will reduce the cost of providing technical support — more than these back doors will reduce the company’s revenue; or
• MS executives realize that the list prices of the “full” versions of Vista are absurdly high, and that building in back doors that will be widely publicized makes the price of the upgrade versions of Vista seem more reasonable by comparison.
One Microsoft executive, Eric Ligman, publicly criticized in a discussion forum my article on Vista’s clean-install method. I contacted him and asked why Vista’s upgrade routine will happily accept a clean-install version of itself, rather than making a simple test for a qualifying version of Windows. Is this an error on the part of the development team, or was it a Microsoft policy decision to quietly allow this kind of upgrade?
“I don’t believe it’s a bug in the system,” says Ligman, who is senior manager of Microsoft’s U.S. Small Business Community Engagement program. “But it’s not intended as a way to install an upgrade version of Vista without having a license for a previous version to do so.”
Ligman added, “I’m not the right person to comment on the thinking of the development team.” That’s certainly true, so I hope to reach someone within the ranks soon to clarify why a trivial version check wasn’t included in Vista’s upgrade routine.
In the meantime, Ligman points out that companies using Microsoft’s Volume Licensing program are entitled to the cheaper "upgrade" price for Vista even if the firms’ existing desktops are running very old operating systems, such as Windows 98, NT Workstation 4.0, or IBM OS/2. For details, see page 82 of a Microsoft Word document entitled Product List (February 2007).
Legitimate uses of the Software License Manager
Whatever the reasons for the until-now-secret features of Vista, the impact on Microsoft’s revenue stream if people began using these features en masse could be enormous. Consider the following scenario:
1. A college buys a single, retail copy of Vista;
2. Using the clean-install trick, an admin installs the single DVD onto an unlimited number of PCs, such as in classrooms throughout the school;
3. Using the 120-day extension trick, the admin makes it unnecessary to activate the copies until the end of the academic quarter; and
4. At the end of the quarter, the hard drives are wiped clean and the same DVD is used to clean-install Vista on an unlimited number of PCs for the new quarter that’s beginning.
This kind of mass duplication, of course, would clearly violate the Microsoft EULA. A school or company that installed this many copies of Vista from a single DVD would be wide open to an inspection by the Business Software Alliance, which obtains search warrants to conduct audits of machines companywide.
Despite the risks, however, many people around the world can and will use the built-in features of Vista to install as many copies of the operating system as they like.
Either Microsoft’s Vista developers are totally incompetent, which I don’t believe, or Microsoft officials at a high level are encouraging the introduction of these features, judging that the benefits outweigh the risks.
In any case, the Software Licensing Manager has several legitimate uses. Many of these are documented when you run slmgr at a prompt without parameters. I’ll just touch on a few here:
• You can install a new product key by entering slmgr -ipk productkey;
• You can display the installation ID by entering slmgr -dti so you can activate Vista offline (without an Internet connection); and
• You can clear your product key from the Vista Registry by entering slmgr -cpky.
This last command is potentially an important security feature. There’s no need for your product key to reside in the Registry once Vista activation is complete. It might be best to remove it, so it cannot be copied and sent to a hacker by a Trojan horse that might one day sneak onto your PC. I hope to print more detailed information about this in a future newsletter.
In addition to the above scenarios, there are many valid reasons for a Windows admin to extend the Vista activation date past its original 30-day limit. Companies that routinely build test PCs to try out various configurations, for instance, shouldn’t have to buy a new copy of Vista every time a machine is wiped clean and rebuilt. A particular testing process might last more than 30 days, requiring an activation extension.
Using the 120-day extension in various scenarios
My testing shows that slmgr -rearm will extend Vista’s activation deadline in all of the following situations:
1. A standard upgrade. If you installed Vista’s upgrade version while running Windows XP or another qualifying product, this is the ordinary case. The extension works with no problems.
2. A clean-install of Vista. If you use my Feb. 1 clean-install trick to install Vista on a clean hard drive, the command also works with no problems. There’s no need to first install the “upgrade” version of Vista on top of the clean-install of Vista before slmgr -rearm will extend the activation deadline.
3. An upgraded clean-install of Vista. If you’ve clean-installed Vista, and then upgraded Vista on top of itself, the slmgr -rearm command also works flawlessly to extend the deadline.
When the Vista activation deadline passes
Microsoft has baked the activation process into every version of Vista, and I believe that we’ll all be living with this mechanism for years to come. Unlike Windows XP, Vista has tougher rollback conditions when its activation deadline passes and activation hasn’t occurred.
An article (paid reg required) in Windows IT Pro Magazine’s December 2006 issue by Paul Thurrott, my co-author of Windows Vista Secrets, explains some of the behaviors you can expect after the deadline:
- “On a genuine, activated copy of Vista, users will have access to certain features, such as the Windows Aero user experience (which enables glass-like translucency effects and other visual niceties), Windows ReadyBoost (a performance-enhancement feature for systems with a USB-based flash memory device), some Windows Defender antispyware functionality, and optional downloadable updates from Windows Update. However, [if a system has passed the activation deadline] the user will lose access to those features and will receive persistent WGA [Windows Genuine Advantage] advertisements.”
I wasn’t the first to discover the 120-day extension technique. As far as I can tell, an early description came from Jeff Atwood of the Coding Horror blog. I merely tested the procedure under various scenarios and found it to be reliable. I’d also like to thank reader Ernie Kitt for his research help with this topic.
I welcome your tips on the use of the techniques I describe above. Please send your tips, on this or any other subject, using the Windows Secrets contact page. Reader Kitt will receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of his choice for sending me research that I used.
Brian Livingston is editorial director of the Windows Secrets Newsletter and the co-author of Windows Vista Secrets and 10 other books.