Vista Hands On #4: Clean install with an upgrade key

Vista Hands On #4: Clean install with an upgrade key

Summary: You probably heard or read about the "Vista upgrade loophole." Most of the reports I've seen have the basic facts wrong. The Setup feature they're describing isn't a loophole at all. It's a perfectly legal workaround for an amazingly stupid technical restriction that Microsoft imposes on upgraders. In this installment of my Vista Hands On series, I explain exactly what's going on and how you can legally perform a clean install using an upgrade key.

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TOPICS: Windows
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I've been reading the breathless reports from other websites this week about the "Vista upgrade loophole." Most of it is typical echo-chamber stuff, and most of the reports I've read so far have gotten the basic facts wrong. The Setup feature they're describing isn't a loophole at all. It's a perfectly legal workaround for an amazingly stupid technical restriction that Microsoft imposes on upgraders. In this installment of my Vista Hands On series, I provide the background to help you understand exactly what's going on and how you can legally perform a clean install using an upgrade key.

Let's start with a few essential facts:

  • All retail copies of Windows Vista use the exact same media. The DVD contains all editions and can be used to perform a full installation or an upgrade. If you compare a full retail copy of Windows Vista Ultimate and an upgrade copy of Windows Vista Home Basic, you'll find that the installation media for the two products are virtually identical.
  • The product key included with the copy you purchase determines how the Setup program behaves. These behaviors are hard-coded into the Setup program based on the key you enter. Specifically, the Setup program is able to look at your key and use an algorithm to determine the edition it "unlocks." The same algorithm determines whether you are allowed to use that key for an upgrade or a clean install or both.
  • The license agreement for a Vista upgrade copy requires that the machine already be licensed for Windows. This license agreement does not restrict the method of installation in any way. Section 13 of the agreement reads as follows:
    • UPGRADES. To use upgrade software, you must first be licensed for the software that is eligible for the upgrade. Upon upgrade, this agreement takes the place of the agreement for the software you upgraded from. After you upgrade, you may no longer use the software you upgraded from.
  • When you run Setup with an upgrade key, the installer does not check to see whether you're really eligible. In fact, Microsoft's licensing infrastructure – the activation and validation servers it uses to check product keys against hardware hashes – does not (yet) contain any mechanism to match up your upgrade license with a previous license.
  • To use an upgrade product key, you must start the Vista Setup program from Windows 2000, Windows XP, or any edition of Windows Vista. Your previous version of Windows doesn't have to be activated. Even an evaluation copy of the edition of Windows Vista you purchased will allow you to run the Setup program with an upgrade key. (Remember that last part.)

Got all that? Good. Now let's put the pieces together.

I'm going to assume that you have a PC that came with Windows XP preinstalled by the PC maker. Any OEM version of Windows XP is eligible to upgrade to any edition of Windows Vista. So you purchase a retail upgrade copy of Vista Ultimate. In the box is a DVD and a 25-character product key.

You don't want to do what Microsoft calls an in-place upgrade, which preserves your installed programs and data files but has a greater risk of migrating your problems as well. Instead, you want to do a clean install. But there's a problem: Microsoft used a crude technique to make clean installs more difficult for upgraders. If you boot from the Vista DVD and enter an upgrade key, you'll see this error message and will not be able to go any further:

Windows Vista setup error for upgraders

Now, this restriction is stupid, because even Microsoft acknowledges that you can be legally entitled to purchase the upgrade version and yet have to do a clean install. (See the notes on Microsoft's official Windows Vista Upgrade Paths from Previous Versions page, for example, which says: "If you are currently using Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional x64, you are eligible for an upgrade copy to a corresponding or better edition of Windows Vista, but a clean install is required." Ahem.)

This silly technical restriction is not required by the license agreement. It's designed to frustrate anyone who wants to use the upgrade version on a new PC without an operating system and get them to pay more for a full version. But it's easily worked around.

Your easiest option – by far - is to use the PC maker's system recovery media to restore an image of Windows XP as it existed when you first got the computer, and then install Vista. I can hear the complaints now: "That copy is out of date. It's loaded with crummy, obsolete drivers and crapware." Yes, I know. That doesn't matter. Every bit of that junk will be erased soon enough. It will never get mixed with your new Vista setup.

After you finish restoring that original system image, start Windows, insert the Vista DVD, and run Vista's Setup program. Follow the steps I listed in Vista Hands On #2: A no-fuss, nondestructive clean install, this time using your upgrade product key. When you're done, use the Disk Cleanup tool to remove all traces of your old installation. You have a fresh, clean system and you are in perfect compliance with your license agreement.

What if you don't have a restore CD? In that case, you can install an evaluation copy of Windows Vista on the system, specifically to allow you to run Setup. Here's how:

1. Boot from the DVD and click Install Now.

2. Leave the product key box blank. Instead, click Next.

3. Click No in this warning dialog box.

Warning when entering no product key with Vista

4. From the list of Vista editions, choose the one that matches the upgrade you purchased.

Choose a Vista edition

5. Complete the installation, accepting all defaults.

Do whatever minimal steps are required to start your new installation for the first time. Wouldn't it be nice if you could enter your perfectly legal, fully paid-for product key now and just make the installation complete? Sorry, you can't do that.

Instead, you need to run Setup again, this time from within Windows Vista. Don't choose the Upgrade option unless you want to spend an hour or two migrating your nonpersonalized default Vista settings. Instead, do a nondestructive clean install. When that's done (it should go very quickly), use the Disk Cleanup tool to blow away the redundant installation in Windows.old. You're now good to go.

Now, was that a loophole? No. You satisfied every condition of the license agreement and aren't skating by on a technicality. The fact that you have to use a kludgey workaround to use the license you've purchased and are legally entitled to is Microsoft's fault.

Topic: Windows

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94 comments
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  • Is it pirating if...

    So Technically you can build a PC from scratch with no OS then buy the Vista upgrade to install the evaluation version then upgrade said version? Technically isn't that still pirating as you don't have a license for any version of Windows?

    On the flip side though. Does the retail upgrade cost more or less than finding some OEM copy for sale at some PC shop? I know one shop that will sell you an OEM copy of Windows version whatever with the purchase of harddrive. I didn't get the price though as I haven't been in the market for an OS in the past 8 years.

    So it might be silly to buy an upgrade for new PC you're building if it turns out the OEM copy is cheaper.
    voska
    • No.

      Go back and read the portion of the license agreement. To legally use an upgrade license, you have to have an eligible license on the machine already. Your upgrade license for Vista replaces your original license for XP. Without that, you can technically perform the upgrade, but it is not in the letter or the spirit of the license agreement. Anyway, an OEM version (which you are entitled to buy for a new PC) costs less than an upgrade version. So why would you do this?
      Ed Bott
      • I've found it difficult to buy OEM

        When I build the PC myself I often buy the parts from many locations. Some are local and some are online. I can usually get some very good deals. Problem is I found that I can't buy an OEM license when only buying a harddrive from the local tech shop. They'd be willing to sell it OEM if I bought all the parts from them but that caused my price to go up 20% for the entire PC.

        I did find a place in another city near by that will sell you an OEM license with the purchase of harddrive just not sure what they charged. Not that this is my problem as I have a copy of windows 2000 retail. Just was curious because my next PC build should be a year from now.
        voska
        • Online

          You can buy OEM System Builder copies from most any online vendor. Newegg is my personal favorite but you can find plenty of others.
          Ed Bott
          • Maybe I'll try that

            I've stuck to Canadian site online so far with little luck getting OEM copies. Maybe I can get a good deal with NewEgg now that the exchange rate is much more reasonable.
            voska
          • Maybe I'll try that

            If you want to stick with Canadian online sites, you may take a look at http://www.ncix.com/products/index.php?majorcatid=108&minorcatid=1055
            They will ship you an OEM copy anywhere in Canada.
            Kualinar
          • Even Amazon has OEM copies

            Go to amazon.com and search for "vista oem".

            And yes, it's a lot cheaper than even an "upgrade" version. I'm not sure how it all works legally, get it while you can...
            jinko
          • It's all perfectly legal

            I've written about this before and looks like I'll have to do another follow-up.
            Ed Bott
          • I Applaud Your Decision!

            I applaud your Linux decision! Microsoft lost me a year ago as a customer. Windows Vista only duplicates what Linux and the Mac have had for generations of their respective O.S. releases from roughly version 4 in 1994.

            I will need a Laptop soon and will either buy an x86 with no O.S. and install Linux or buy an Apple which, has Linux BSD as its underpinning below the Mac G.U.I..

            Vista is a wake-up call for more to reconsider where their hard earned $$$ go!
            The Rifleman
          • Rifleman needs to reload.

            When you say:
            "Vista only duplicates what Linux and the Mac have had for generations of their respective O.S. releases from roughly version 4 in 1994."

            You are not even being close to real. I completely understand your obvious love of Linux as its a good OS and it can be had for free, but you live in some kind of perverse dreamland if you think people are laying out hard earned money for XP and now Vista for what is only a duplicate of what could have been had for free since 1994. I have used Linux SUSE for a period of time and while it was a decent OS its still not as good as XP for the average users purposes so in fact Linux has not duplicated what Vista does, or even what XP does. Linux certainly has its advantages, just like an SUV has advantages over some other types of vehicles, but Linux no more duplicates a great deal of what people value in WIndows anymore then an SUV duplicates what people value in other forms of automobiles.
            Cayble
      • Disagree

        I disagree, Ed. If you re-read his post, he says that he does NOT have an XP licence. He is building the box from scratch with no XP license whatsoever and then he wants to use the evaluation version of XP (no license) to install a Vista upgrade. So, I don't see how "legally" he can use the upgrade license of Vista if he does not have an OEM or purchased licence for XP.

        Howie
        hforman9
      • Re: No

        You are correct in your response, but incorrect in your explanation.

        You do not have to have an "eligible license on the machine", there's no stipulation that it be installed.

        Read the text of the license that deals with upgrading:

        "To use upgrade software, you must first be licensed for the software that is eligible for the upgrade."

        You only have to be licensed to have the OS installed on the machine, not actually have it installed. That's why installing their demo on a box you want to do a fresh install on is legal,
        as long as you have a valid product license for the old OS.
        brichter
    • OEM is cheaper than retail...

      [i]On the flip side though. Does the retail upgrade cost more or less than finding some OEM copy for sale at some PC shop?[/i]

      When I bought the PC I'm currently using, I asked the vendor if it was possible to sell it to me without Windows. He said yes and it would cost me $70 less. I did buy it with Windows, but after a week with it I wiped out XP for Linux.

      But for an OEM copy of Vista, this blog post from Ed should answer your question:
      http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?p=187
      Tony Agudo
    • No support with OEM

      Arguably, if you're not a system builder you shouldn't use OEM's. Retail versions have Microsoft support. Call Microsoft when you have an OEM version and they'll refer you to your system builder.
      globalpc
      • Call Microsoft...

        "Call Microsoft when you have an OEM version and they'll refer you to your system builder."

        And if you call Microsoft with a retail copy what do they tell you? Is it anything useful?
        jinko
    • Dear Voska, and anyone who needs help

      I am a person who builds/repairs/trains people on computers. If you would like please email me directly and I will share some of my OEM secrets with you.

      henry@perscompsvc.com
      http://www.perscompsvc.com
      PersCompSvc
  • Only reason

    "[b]When you run Setup with an upgrade key, the installer does not check to see whether you're really eligible.[/b] In fact, Microsoft's licensing infrastructure ? the activation and validation servers it uses to check product keys against hardware hashes ? does not [b](yet)[/b] contain any mechanism to match up your upgrade license with a previous license."

    That "yet" is the only reason I am reluctant to buy the upgrade version as opposed to the OEM version. With the OEM version, I spend less money for Ultimate and avoid the "kludgey" upgrade but with the retail upgrade version of Ultimate I would also get the 64bit disc in case I would like to move to it at a later time. Which brings up a question. If I buy the retail upgrade Ultimate edition and initially install the 32bit version, would I have to pay another upgrade fee to move to the 64bit version later when drivers become more available for it?
    marbo100
    • I think you can move from 32 to 64

      "If I buy the retail upgrade Ultimate edition and initially install the 32bit version, would I have to pay another upgrade fee to move to the 64bit version later when drivers become more available for it?"

      I think so. I asked this question earlier and was told that the 32 and 64-bit versions are considered the same. They use the same product key and would have teh same hardware hash, so it would look to Microsoft just like a reinstall on unchanged hardware.
      Ed Bott
  • Vista Hands On #42: Don't bother purchasing.

    It's been denounced in performance tests, despite requiring faster hardware.

    Security has already been perforated, sheesh!

    And BitLocker is the daftest idea ever introduced... watch in delight as people tape the USB key on the laptop or keep the key, with the laptop, in the same bag... A selling point?! For whom, the first cretin on the block, maybe! Stick to third party solutions; once a hacker figures out Microsoft's algorithm, the component is worthless. Remember how long it took for someone to crack Windows XP's firewall, which was also touted as making XP "the most secure Windows ever"... oops... Anybody relying solely on one vendor is a fool. Homogeny only helps hackers. And if people can't fathom that out, what are they doing in an IT job?

    It costs waaaaaaay too much for what one gets. And compared to the viral risk in Windows, I'd rather spend the money and risk a virus from a hooker...

    And if anybody gets the "42" reference, I'll buy you a Pepsi. :9
    HypnoToad72
    • Sorry, that's not the Meaning of Life ...

      ... the universe, and everything. But thanks for playing.
      Ed Bott