Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Installing Windows 7 OEM without disks (1)

This is basically a rant about a struggle I had with Microsoft product keys on a new Dell laptop. To keep it useful, the question at hand is this: without disks from the manufacturer, can you make a clean installation of Windows 7 using an OEM product key? The answer is yes. First, get your OEM product key, either from a list online or with a tool like Belarc Advisor. Download the relevant DVD image for the version of W7 you want to install, burn it to disc (I used ImgBurn), and start the installation process by booting from the DVD. When prompted for a product key, uncheck the automatic validation option and don't supply a key. Once you've booted into W7, activate by phone. It doesn't matter whether you install 32-bit or 64-bit via this method, but the flavour (Starter, Home, Professional or Ultimate) must match the key.

My full story goes like this. I finally unpackaged my new Dell Latitude E5520 that will replace my dear but ageing Inspiron 4600 desktop. I started the machine up to find that it had a lot of bloatware, as usual, but also a 32-bit version of Windows 7 Professional (W7Pro), even though the hardware is fully capable of handling 64-bit. So I set out to install the 64-bit version of W7Pro, without any disks from Dell.

I want to take a moment to highlight the level of bloatware I'm talking about. While wildly uninstalling most of the junk Dell had installed on the laptop, I noticed a "Modem Diagnostic Tool". My curiosity was piqued so I decided to pause in my trimming of the software list and see what this particular program would provide as a diagnosis...

No surprises there. When was the last time Dell even made a laptop with a modem? Have they not updated the driver/application list since then? A sure sign of the competence to come

On with W7. Why would there be any problem just installing W7Pro from scratch? Product keys. Those 25-character strings that testify one's right to a legal copy of Microsoft's product, the software that only runs thereupon, and updates for all of the above. There are some things that are well-known here. The product key doesn't transfer between different variants of Windows 7. If you have a key for Professional, it won't validate an instance of Ultimate. They do transfer between different architectures, despite what the helpful technician in the Dell call centre told me. That is, a key for 32-bit W7 will activate the 64-bit version too. I don't think having a disk with Service Pack 1 makes a difference. That wouldn't make sense, right? But not much in the last few days did. Certainly not when the Microsoft techie told me that there are no service packs for Windows 7.

What if your computer came with W7 already on it? In that case, you probably have an OEM version. Now things become very complicated. I toiled with a variety of solutions to my problem before I stumbled upon one that worked. I have burned three slightly different images of the W7Pro Retail DVD (and, accidentally, one Ultimate DVD too) in a bid to get an activated copy of W7Pro. You can Google the issue to your heart's content but the leading theory I've come across is that you can install a Retail version of W7 and activate it using an OEM product key, but you have to activate by phone. Don't ask.

So, the first thing you will need is an image of the W7 retail disk. Do not fear. These are entirely legal. They were created because some users suggested Microsoft could join in on this strange notion of digital distribution and they conceded. There is a full listing of disks with and without SP1 at My Digital Life. Because the validity of keys with SP1 is unclear, I avoided those, but it doesn't matter: I couldn't install off those disks and validate successfully. In the end I used the same method as the one that did work, but with these ISOs, the phone activation failed. You've been warned.

I then found a lengthy post in their forums that describes cracking W7 by pretending to be an OEM machine. This is possible because the OEM keys are the same for all customers. That is, everyone who buys a Dell Latitude with W7Pro gets the same product key and these keys can be easily found online. The crackers then load a piece of software into the BIOS that make the computer pretend to be manufactured by Dell or HP or whoever, so the OEM version installs and validates. If you're wondering, yes, that practice is entirely illegal. However, the disk images they have must be working for OEM product keys, which is what I have a legal entitlement to. The forum only has one disk image, so if you use it, don't forget to tinker with ei.cfg to change it. That's how I ended up with one Ultimate disc.

What have I learned from this? I don't know how hard it might be to install an illegal copy of W7, but damn, I found it hard to install a legal one. Not with any help from Dell of Microsoft either. In fact, I gotunhelp: each techie told me at least one thing that is simply not true.

Update 1: I filled in a customer experience survey over the weekend and Dell phoned yesterday to apologize for my being misinformed. Half-decent customer relations, but that isn't to say the guy was actually helpful. He just told me how sorry Dell was and corrected his co-worker's error.

Update 2: A few weeks after this post, I updated Windows and it started saying that my copy wasn't genuine. A few days later, I updated again and the problem disappeared. Warp forward to a few weeks ago and it started doing the same thing. But this time it hasn't stopped and it's been nearly a month now. No manner of other trickery has worked so I'm going to try installing W7Pro as I should have in the first place...

Update 3: W7 was gradually shutting down on my laptop so I tried to re-install. This method no longer worked even with the precisely correct (i.e. OEM channel, Professional) DVD but I discovered a sticker under the battery that had a different product key on it. This "other" key validated fine over the internet.