Will BIOS-embedded Windows 8 product keys cause reinstall troubles?

Will BIOS-embedded Windows 8 product keys cause problems for those wanting to upgrade -- or downgrade -- their copy of Windows?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Those purchasing Windows 8 PCs are noticing that the small "Certificate of Authenticity" that is normally home to the product key is missing, and instead a "Genuine Microsoft" label has replaced it.

This seems to be a cause of concern, and is prompting a number of questions.

Rather than using a sticker, PC manufacturers are instead embedding the product key -- associated with a fingerprint of the hardware -- into the BIOS/UEFI firmware on the motherboard. This is part of Microsoft new OEM Activation 3.0 (OA 3.0) mechanism and has been designed to combat piracy and, according to my OEM contacts, makes it easier for OEMs to order new keys from Microsoft, and even return unused keys back to Microsoft.

But what does it mean to the end user?

To most people, nothing. Windows is activated and should run normally. If, for any reason, you need to reinstall Windows 8 from the recovery partition or recovery discs, then the setup should recover the product key from the hardware, making it a lot less of a headache than having to read a string of tiny numbers off a sticker located somewhere awkward on your desktop or notebook PC.

But what happens if you want to upgrade Windows? Does this BIOS-embedded product key mean that you're stuck with whatever version of Windows that was installed on the hardware when it left the factory?

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Of course not.

Windows 8 users can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro either using the "Add features to Windows 8" feature baked into the operating system, or using a retail copy of Windows 8 Pro (which is a far more expensive way to upgrade). 

Commercial customers can also use volume license product keys and volume license media to upgrade hardware.

But what happens if you hate Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro and want to nuke it and downgrade? Will the BIOS-embedded product key cause problems? No, it won't. As long as you have the relevant media, and a valid product key, you can install an earlier version of Windows -- or Linux -- onto the hardware without any problems.

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