Vista Hands On #1: What you need to know about product keys

Vista Hands On #1: What you need to know about product keys

Summary: When you buy a copy of Windows Vista, the most important part of the purchase is the 25-character product key, which you use to activate your installation. In the first installment of my Vista Hands-On series, I explain how to use two tools - an obscure VBScript file included with all Vista editions and a free third-party utility - to find out important details about your product key.

TOPICS: Windows

When you buy a retail copy of Windows Vista, the most important part of your purchase is the product key that comes with it. That 25-character key determines which Vista edition you're allowed to install and activate, and it also tells the Setup program whether you've purchased a full or upgrade license. (That detail is important, as I'll explain tomorrow.)

Vista keeps track of licensing details using a service called Software Licensing. Slmgr.vbs, a VBScript file included with all Vista editions, allows you to query the current installation and see details about your installation and your licensing status. To run the script, open a Command Prompt window (click Start, type cmd in the Start Search box, and press Enter). Here are two things you can do with this script file:

1. Check your activation status.

From a command prompt, type slmgr -xpr and press Enter to see whether your installation is activated or not. The details appear in a separate information box, not in the Command Prompt window. The information you see will tell you whether your copy is activated. If it's not, you'll see the deadline when you're required to activate.

Vista activation status

2. Sort out product IDs.

If you have two or more computers running the same edition of Vista, you might lose track of which product key you used for each machine. The solution? Open a Command Prompt window on each machine and type the command slmgr -dli. The -dli switch stands for "display license information" and shows the last five characters of your license ID. Assuming you have the product keys written down, you can use these details to see which key is in use on each machine.

If you want more information, use the -dlv ("display license, verbose") switch instead.

If you choose not to enter a product ID when you install Windows Vista, the Setup program automatically supplies a default key. In that case, the information displayed by slmgr -dli or slmgr -dlv will be one of the following default keys, which cannot be activated:

  • Business - MRW4W
  • BusinessN - QXX44
  • HomeBasic - 3V4VD
  • HomeBasicN - GFJBT
  • HomePremium - 76PKF
  • Ultimate - RP8F7

Lost your product key? Assuming you're running a 32-bit Vista version, you can find it using the latest beta edition of Keyfinder, from Magical Jellybean Software. Here's a screen clip showing the results when running Keyfinder v2.0 Beta 2-1/2. That's the default key for Windows Vista Ultimate, taken from a system where I installed Vista Ultimate without entering a product key during Setup.

Later in this series, I'll show you a few other interesting tricks you can perform with Slmgr.vbs.

Topic: Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Now isn't that a hoot!

    You Windows guys are always screaming about CLI in Linux and in order you check your activation status what do you have to use? Command line... ]:)
    Linux User 147560
    • There's a GUI method too

      And this particular Windows guy has always been a firm believer in having CLI methods as an option. It sucks when they're the only way to get things done.
      Ed Bott
      • Well goody

        Now we have another CLI invocation to manage Windows:

        and now slmgr

        Just for managing whether we're in "good" with the gang at MS. What WILL they think of next?

        So Slmgr.vbs is a VBScript file. I wonder what kinds of havoc can be wreaked on you license key codes by hacking this VB script to do evil...

        Also, if there's a GUI method, why not report that too?
        • Are you deliberately being dense?

          Ipconfig is a network status tool that works at a command line. Although you can use it for management tasks, it's primarily there to rpovide status information and be scriptable.

          Msconfig is a GUI-based tool for viewing and controlling services and startup apps. It's not CLI.

          If you'd like to "hack this Vbscript file to do evil," go right ahead. It's a plain text file.
          Ed Bott
          • Ed, are you deliberatley being dense?

            msconfig is not something I have ever found to invoke from the GUI. The only way I know is to invoke it from CLI. I guess I could make a shortcut to it from the GUI, but that's not how it's packaged.

            Your mention of slmgr shows it be invoked by CLI and resulting in a GUI dialog - just like msconfig. Imagine?

            Also your mention of slmgr shows it only to be a status tool with different levels of reporting (verbose or ~), just like ipconfig. Imagine?

            Still don't know about that GUI invocation for slmgr, so I can't help but compare it to msconfig in any event.

            As for editing the script, I don't do that - but I am absolutely positive that there are many people with criminal intentions working the script and the functions it calls right now.

            Anyway, thanks for the lesson in the obvious regarding ipconfig and msconfig. I may have never known that (not)...

          • Nope, you're wrong

            Slmgr is a command-line utility that displays its results in a message box.

            Msconfig is a GUI program. It has a shortcut called System Configuration Utility in the Administrative Tools folder in the Programs menu.

            Now, you say the the two are the same? Wrong. You can change settings from the System Configuration Utility dialog box and apply them using standard window controls. Can't do that with Slmgr.vbs, which is a script that calls Windows Script Host.

            Ipconfig is a console utility. It runs from the command line and displays its results in a console window. So we now have three different tools with three different behaviors.

            You can run the System Configuration Utility, just as you can any program, by entering the name of its executable (Msconfig.exe) from the command line. You could start Microsoft Word by typing winword at a command prompt. That doesn't make either of them a command-line application.

            As for security, virtually every aspect of Windows, including every service, can be controlled by script. It's been that way since the last century. Your implication that the existence of a canned script to run certain functions is somehow a security risk displays how little you know about Windows internals.

            Nice try.
            Ed Bott
          • Ed I wasn't trying anything.

            And guess what, Ed ol' pal? You're wrong.

            There is no "System Configuration Utility" on this XP Pro machines Admin group and it is not on any that I have ever come across, which is quite a few of them.

            This must be something you have installed from XP power tools as a shortcut or perhaps a program shortcut you created yourself. It certainly is not a default "feature" on any PC that was was shipped with XP pre-installed.

            In addition to being wrong, you're still dense. I was comparing similarities. In the real world, they're all CLI invocations and I don't care at all whether they're based on scripts, binaries, display GUI items or allow configuration. They're all pretty important to most users and accessed via CLI and that was my singular point. You found all of the differences that you could to prove what? That you can be both dense and disagreeable?

            Well you've convinced me.

            Thanks again.

          Just to let you know msolgeek that MSCONFIG is certainly not a CLI command regardless of how many XP machines you claim not to have found it on.

          Click Start > RUN > MSCONFIG

          Hey presto, a GUI Window.
          • Whatever

            You fail to understand? It's a Command Line Interface (CLI) invocation. That's why you must click "Run" "Run" is a method to enter a single command line into the process queue. You can also enter "Run" "Cmd" MSCONFIG. The only difference is that you do or don't spawn a window for the CLI.

            It's not invoked from the GUI. That was my point and it apparently fell into the void between your ears
      • GUI method too?

        How come you have not published anything about this yet. Why no instructions or pictures. Windows users love the pretty pictures.
        • Be careful

          Ed gets quite indignant when you ask this. He may even call you dense for mentioning "msconfig" while listing CLI apps.
          • Check

            Perhaps this was because you was arguing it was a CLI command and that you were unable to locate the GUI interface on any XP machine you went on.

            Start > RUN > MSCONFIG

          • To the VOID

            It's elementary that you don't know what "Run" does.

            When you must type, it's not a GUI invocation.
    • isn't activation status info hard to come by?

      First off, Ed, I enjoyed your book ?. . . XP: Inside Out? and play on getting the Vista addition. As for having to use the command line, Linux User 147560, whats wrong with that? I often use the command line in Windows and the GUI in Ubuntu Linux. What's the big deal? Is this discussion going to devolve into a MY OS is better than YOUR OS? I use both OS's and there are advantages and disadvantages in each. They are just tools to get the job done and Mr Bott is just being kind enough to show us something that would be difficult to find on our own. Linux User 147560, Instead of spreading venom on this site why don't you help a new Linux user, such as myself, with command line manipulation tricks?
  • "The most important part of your purchase... the product key that comes with it."

    <p>Odd, I would have thought that, when you buy an OS, the most important part of your purchase would be the...OS. The task scheduler, the memory allocation mechanism, the file systems, the interrupt and sgnals mechanisms, and all the other bits of an OS that keep your computer from being an expensive doostop.

    <p>But, no, not in Microsoftland. There, the most important part of your "purchase" is the mechanism that limits your use of the very product you just "purchased" to whatever Microsoft is, conditionally, willing to let you have.

    <p>Somehow, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
    Henry Miller
    • ya lost me

      Most software I work with (of any significance, anyway) requires registering it in some way with the company I bought it from. Siebel, Photoshop, Quark (has anyone ever had their web registration work?).
      The BestColor software we use on a RIP requires a USB key to be in place for it to run. Many of the packages I have worked with for years have needed some sort of hardware key or dongle.

      What is your problem with MS? And if it is a problem because MS is doing it, why is it OK when other do it?
      • Sorry if I wasn't clear.

        Mostly, I was being sarcastic about Ed Bott's choice of wording that the activation key was "the most important part of the purchase." That may be true from Microsoft's perspective, but it's certainly not from the customer's--that key doen't make the machine work any faster or better or more reliably. From the customer's perspective, all the key represents is a means by which Microsoft can keep the machine from working at all.

        <p>As to your other points, that's a world I know nothing about--nothing on any machine I own or use needs any kind of key or dongle. And while I have a number of problems with Microsoft, <i>ad rem,</i> it's their willingness to demand that their interests be served at the expense of their customers' that annoy me. And that would be true of any other company that threatens to shut down a computer <i>I've</i> paid for unless I agree to operate it in accordance with their demands. I doubt if even the most draconian of application vendors stipulate <i>that</i>.
        Henry Miller
        • I don't understand

          >> And that would be true of any other company that threatens to shut down a computer I've paid for unless I agree to operate it in accordance with their demands. I doubt if even the most draconian of application vendors stipulate that.

          I don't understand this at all.

          I can think of a dozen large software companies and an equal number of small ones that use product activation. In all cases, if the software is not activated, it will not work. Now, when an application developer codes his software so it stops working, it doesn't affect the operation of the computer. But if you stop an operating system from working correctly if it doesn't pass an activation test, you lose the use of the computer. That's unavoidable.

          So calling Microsoft's activation scheme more draconian than anyone else's is a distortion. It's just that there are greater consequences for disallowing the use of the software in question.
          Ed Bott
          • "You lose the use of the computer."

            But it's <i>my</i> computer! I bought it, I paid a fair amount of money for it, and Microsoft is telling me I can't use it? When did the control of my property pass to Microsoft?

            <p>"When you agreed to the licensing terms." you reply. But a significant fraction of my point is that for a lot of users, they have no choice about accepting the licensing terms. Windows was on the machine when they bought it and they lack the resources to remove it or replace it. In effect, they've agreed to the licensing terms under duress: Microsoft has made them an offer they can't refuse. At least not if they want to actually use the computer they just paid for.

            <p>That's one of the pernicious aspects of Microsoft's monopoly. They trap people into agreeing to conditions--like giving Microsoft the right to snoop around in their computers and the right to shut down the user's machine if it's upgraded in ways of which Microsoft does not approve--that are not only not in the user's best interests, but, in the later example, <i>contrary</i> to their interests.

            <p>And, yes, Microsoft's scheme <i>is</i> more draconian because the consequences--the complete failure of an expensive computer--are disproportionate to "crime" against Microsoft. In effect, given the inability of most people to avoid dealing with Microsoft--because of their near-monopoly in computers sold to the public--their licensing schemes, and their reaction to even a perception of a violation thereof, is a form of extortion.
            Henry Miller
          • Ah, now we are getting somewhere

            You state "But it's my computer! I bought it, I paid a fair amount of money for it, and Microsoft is telling me I can't use it? When did the control of my property pass to Microsoft?"

            Well your hardware NEVER did: the problem is that you see no choice other than purchasing a windows license. You DO have a choice, you can download Ubuntu Linux, for FREE, and you can even give copies to your friends, change the source code, ect. Unfortunately, for most people, probably you included, this is not a real choice as there are probably applications programs that NEED windows to run. What we REALLY needed is non windows, windows compatible OS. Remember DR DOS and Novell DOS? They could run DOS programs just like MS DOS, only they were superior OS's That's what we really need is a NON Microsoft windows clone!