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Windows XP Activation Woes
by chris

"I enjoyed your articles on how to build a computer. I have a question - if you use Windows XP for your homebuilt computer and you decide to upgrade your motherboard and processor, do you have to buy another copy of Windows XP?"
- Mcfallison - Houston, TX.

The Windows XP EULA (End User License Agreement) limits the user to one installation on one system. Under the terms of the agreement, you could install the OS on a different system as long as it is removed from the old one first. Replacing the system board is about the same as building a whole new computer, even if you don't start from scratch.

Hardware detection: If you were to move your hard drive from the old system to the new, or replace the system board and CPU in the same case, it is no different than getting a whole new computer as far as the OS is concerned. When you replace a CPU, you may gain performance or speed, but when you replace the motherboard with a different brand or model, you are probably going to be changing a whole list of things that determine how your computer works. These include the core chipset, the BIOS, and a whole set of integrated devices that would include video, network, IDE, audio, and so on. While Windows will scan the new hardware and reconfigure itself, lots of problems could occur if the new components are similar enough to the old ones that new drivers do not replace existing ones. The best way to avoid these issues is by reinstalling the operating system after the hardware has been upgraded. You may be able to reinstall on top of your old configuration, retaining all the data and prior program installations. But, as a precaution, I would make sure to back-up all of your critical data and be prepared to reinstall all your programs if this fails.

Activation: Windows XP creates a "hash" based on the system configuration of your computer when it runs for the first time. On a new install, you have up to 30 days to activate. If you make changes to the system configuration (for example, changing the video card, adding network adapters and modems) Windows XP compares the new configuration to the old. In the event that changes exceed a certain limit, it will ask you to re-activate immediately. The software activation step is part of Microsoft's anti-piracy solution. In most cases, the changes one would make to a system over its life are relatively minor and do not trigger the re-activation process. Swapping the system board usually means that the chipset, the BIOS, and the list of integrated components used to build that original profile are going to all be different enough and activation would be required again.

If you have an internet connection, Windows will attempt to activate directly. Because the computer will appear to be a different system from the one that it was originally activated on, more than likely, this process will fail. If you do not activate, the OS will not start, and your only option is to shut down. You can manually activate Windows XP over the phone. If dial-up or network activation fails, the Activation Wizard should display a toll-free number you can call to complete the activation process. You will be required to provide a 40-digit number generated by the activation process based on the new hardware. You will have to explain to the person on the other end why you are trying to activate Windows on a "different system". Assuming this is successful, you will be given a 46-digit sequence to key back into the Activation wizard to complete the process.

A final reminder if you have to re-install: A new installation of Windows XP is not going to have all of the previous critical updates and service patches from your old system. With Windows XP, you have the capability of activating the built-in firewall before connecting the first time. While the firewall will not block everything, it should protect against common security issues and virus/worm threats that attack unprotected systems. If you don't do this first, chances are you will never stay connected to the Internet long enough to download all of the necessary security patches and critical updates from the Windows Update site. To activate the Windows XP firewall: open Network connections from the Windows Control Panel; right click on the connection you use for the Internet and select properties; click on the advanced tab and place a check in the box next to "Protect my computer..." Use an anti-virus program as well, and make sure its signature files are current.

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