November 17, 2009

Microsoft has been praised, by others and by their own ads, for improvements in Windows 7. One thing hasn't changed: their awful, mandatory product activation.

Earlier in the summer, I jumped at the chance to preorder Windows 7 for $50. My Windows computer at home does very little besides play media, but I figured that Windows Vista wouldn't be supported for very long. Fifty bucks isn't that much to pay for an upgrade anyway; by contrast, I paid $130 to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5 and another $25 to upgrade to 10.6 just a few years later.

I dutifully waited until after the World Series (recorded on my Windows media box) to install the upgrade. I inserted the Windows 7 disc into my Windows Vista PC while booted into Vista, as the instructions stated. When Windows 7 Setup asked me where I wanted to install the OS, I saw my first show-stopping error message: "Setup was unable to create a new system partition or locate an existing system partition." Binging this message brings up about 212,000 results. The error recurred even after I deleted my existing Windows Vista partition and tried to create another one. It turns out I had to boot into BIOS setup, change the boot order to make my hard disk second only to the CD/DVD drive, and return to Windows 7 Setup. (Note how this error message says nothing about changing one's boot order.)

After continuing the installation, my product key wasn't accepted. I re-entered it many times but in all cases, I wasn't allowed to continue. In true Microsoft style, despite the lack of messaging indicating I could do so, I clicked "Next" to skip the product key step entirely.

The initial installation of Windows 7 looked and worked much like Vista with the added experience of completely broken video playback. After more Binging I found that I had to install a new video driver — from Intel's site, not from Windows Update — to get video playback working again.

The problems with activation continued. Microsoft has a support site called Microsoft Answers, modeled after Yahoo! Answers, on which there are legions of questions concerning product keys not being accepted. The simple explanation is that Microsoft thinks I did a full install with an upgrade product, so my upgrade product key is not sufficient. Their official response to many of these questions: install your old OS and then upgrade again using a very specific set of steps. Well, my PC didn't come with recovery CDs, only a recovery partition, and the only way to access that recovery partition is to burn CDs before wiping out the Windows installation that came with the PC! Sony will helpfully sell me a set of recovery discs for $48, almost what I paid for this Windows 7 upgrade.

There's an interesting article called Clean Install Windows 7 with Upgrade Media by Windows übermensch Paul Thurrott. I didn't try it because it seemed like a hack that Microsoft could eventually retaliate against, forcing people to activate again to receive Windows 7 Service Pack 1, for example. Imagine my surprise when a representative from Microsoft, using Easy Assist, used exactly this procedure to let me activate Windows 7 using my upgrade product key. I explicitly asked the rep whether he was doing this because I erased my old Windows partition during the install process, and he said yes with a defeated, "this is my 50th call about this today" tone to his voice.

Microsoft has finally allowed me to use the software that I paid for, and all it took was a wasted Saturday afternoon reading forums and 40 minutes on the phone. I can understand their reason for imposing activation on corporations with multiple licenses, but Microsoft's lack of trust in their own end-user customers is really inappropriate. At this point I don't care how great Windows 8 will be. If I have to go through that activation pain again, I'm sitting that next version out.