How Windows 7 hardware upgrades affect licensing

Find out how you can optimize and upgrade your customers' Windows 7 hardware without compromising Microsoft's End User License Agreement.

When you install any version of Windows, you must click to approve its End User Licensing Agreement (EULA). Though most people breeze right past this step, the EULA is a legal and binding contract between you and Microsoft. When you sign (or click) the EULA while installing Windows 7, and when your copy of Windows 7 is activated online, a snapshot of your computer system is made (no personal data is recorded, Microsoft claims) and sent to Microsoft to identify your system, matching it with the unique serial number encoded in that particular copy of the software.

Code internal to Windows 7 that you never see unless there is trouble, called Software Protection Platform (SPP), checks your system for authenticity of Microsoft software and alerts Microsoft if it finds inauthentic (pirated) software. SPP's purpose is to help Microsoft crack down on software privacy, and (they say) to help protect you by ensuring that your Microsoft product is authentic. SPP can get upset and nag you if it detects pirated software or other EULA infractions.

In Vista, this capability was branded Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA). In Windows 7 this facility is renamed Windows Activation Technology (WAT). Whereas the first major version of Vista (before Service Pack 1 was released) could actually cripple the OS if it wasn't activated or if indications of piracy were found, subsequent versions of WGA lost this capability, and replaced it with a "nag facility" that sets your screen background to black and nags you to get right with Microsoft, and does so every hour on the hour until you fix the problem (which usually means supplying a valid license key obtained from Microsoft in some form or fashion).

The upshot of WAT (and the WGA technology that remains in synch with that from Vista SP1) is exactly this:

  • If you buy a PC with Windows 7 already installed, you have fewer rights of reinstallation. You are not supposed to move Windows over to another machine, and it would be difficult to do so because you typically don't have an install DVD anyway.
  • Retail copies of Windows cost much more than OEM copies, for a reasoon. You can move them around between computers as you upgrade to better machines. If you buy a full retail version, you can put it on another computer and reactivate the new one. Keep in mind, however, that this is legal only if you uninstall it from the previous computer. You are supposed to format the system hard disk in the old computer. Microsoft should give you an uninstall utility so you don't have to wipe the hard disk, but they don't. Personally, I think this is because they don't really expect the average small business or home user to do this. Microsoft is simply trying to prevent a PC clone manufacturer from duplicating one copy of Windows on hundreds or thousands of PCs.

Upgrading hardware in the same box and complying with EULA

Because this chapter deals with upgrading hardware rather than complete computer replacement, the real question is: How do EULA and SPP rules apply to upgrades? How much hardware can you upgrade before SPP starts nagging you through the WAT facility?

In the original version of Windows Vista, SPP worked this way: The hardware in your system was recorded when you activated Windows, as already mentioned. If you changed too many items (most notably, your motherboard and hard disk drive), system functionality was slowly reduced. Over time, portions of the OS were crippled and you'd be running in Reduced Functionality Mode (RFM). At first, there would only be subtle events, such as updates or Aero not working, but eventually the desktop would go black, Windows Explorer wouldn't work, and all you could do is browse the Internet.

Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Because of WAT and a kinder, gentler approach to dealing with activation or potential piracy, you'll simply have to put up with hourly nag sessions and a black desktop background.

What triggers the need to reactivate Windows? As intended, each hardware component gets a relative weight, and from that WGA determines whether your copy of Windows 7 needs reactivation. The weight and the number of changes is apparently a guarded secret. If you upgrade too much at once, WAT decides that your PC is new, and things can get messy.

The actual algorithm that Microsoft uses is not disclosed, but we do know the weighting of components is as follows, from highest to lowest:

  1. Motherboard (and CPU)
  2. Hard drive
  3. Network interface card (NIC)
  4. Graphics card
  5. RAM

If you just add a new hard disk or add new RAM, there is no issue. If you create an image of your Windows 7 installation on another hard disk and swap that hard disk into the system and boot from it, or if you replace all your RAM and reboot, WAT gets triggered and checks to see whether you must reactivate Windows 7.

In theory, chances that you'll get stung by any of this are not great. It was widely expected that the only users who'd need to worry about reactivation would be users who'd buy a preinstalled system, image the hard disk or try to move the hard disk to a newer, faster computer, or perform a motherboard upgrade using a preinstalled copy of Windows 7.

Unfortunately, in practice users have been forced to reactivate after relatively modest hardware changes. In one Vista example, a user who changed from a DirectX 9 -- to a DirectX 10 -- compatible graphics card had to reactivate his installation. But wait, it got worse: Another Vista user had to reactivate Windows after upgrading to a newer version of the Intel Matrix Storage driver for his motherboard. Essentially, WGA mistook a driver upgrade for a significant hardware upgrade. Users who missed the three-day reactivation window (it's easy to do) found themselves needing to make a phone call to reactivate. Users who were hearing-impaired found that difficult to do.

Meanwhile, users of bogus Windows 7 and Vista copies have used activation bypasses such as the Grace Timer or OEM BIOS exploits to run Windows without interference from WAT (WGA in Vista). Essentially, in the original version of Windows Vista, Windows made it way too difficult for legitimate users to cope with systems that could not be activated normally or needed to be reactivated. This led to the proliferation of usable (but illegal) workarounds. Thankfully, WAT brings those days to an end, as SP1 did for Vista.

Upgrading and optimizing your computer

Here are several tips I've learned over the years that can help save you hours of hardware headaches.


Some "legacy" hardware technologies no longer supported include EISA buses, game ports, Roland MPU-401 MIDI interface, AMD K6/2+ Mobile Processors, Mobile Pentium II, and Mobile Pentium III SpeedStep. ISAPnP (ISA Plug and Play) is disabled by default. Startup Hardware Profiles also have been removed.

Keep an eye on hardware compatibility

If you've been accustomed to thumbing your nose at Microsoft's Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) -- renamed Windows Logo'd Products List for Windows 7 -- because you've been using Windows 9x, it's time to reform your behavior. In a pinch, Windows 9x could use older Windows drivers and could even load MS-DOS device drivers to make older hardware work correctly. Windows 7, like other NT-based versions of Windows, has done away with AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS, so you can't use DOS-based drivers anymore. And, although Windows 7 can use some Windows 2000 and XP drivers in an emergency, you're much better off with drivers made especially for Windows 7 or Vista. You can view the online version of the Windows Logo'd Products List by visiting the Microsoft website.


Hardware failures, power failures, and human error can prevent Windows 7 from starting successfully. Recovery is easier if you know the configuration of each computer and its history and if you back up critical system files before tweaking your Windows 7 configuration. A good hedge against this problem is to create a technical reference library for all your hardware and software documentation. Your reference library should include the history of software changes and upgrades for each machine, as well as hardware settings like those described here.

Sleuthing out conflicts

When you're hunting down potential IRQ, memory, and I/O conflicts, use the Device Manager to help out. Yes, Computer Management, System Information, Hardware Resources, and Conflicts Sharing can show you potential conflicts, so those are good places to look, too. But let me share a trick that you can use with the Device Manager that isn't readily apparent.

Normally, the class of devices called Hidden Devices isn't shown. To show them, open the Device Manager (either via Control Panel, System, or from Computer Management). Then, on the View menu, click Show Hidden Devices. A checkmark next to Show Hidden Devices indicates that hidden devices are showing. Click it again to clear the checkmark. Hidden devices include non-PnP devices (devices with older Windows 2000 device drivers) and devices that have been physically removed from the computer but have not had their drivers uninstalled.

Optimizing your computer for Windows 7

Optimizing your computer for Windows 7 is actually quite easy. I'm very impressed with the capability of this OS to keep on chugging. It doesn't cough or die easily if you mind your manners.

  • If you buy new stuff for an upgrade, consider only hardware that's on the tested products list and the Windows Logo'd Products List (
  • When you buy a new machine, get it with Windows 7 preinstalled and from a reputable maker with decent technical support, not just a reputable dealer. The dealer might not be able to solve complex technical problems. Brand-name manufacturers such as Dell, HP, Gateway, Lenovo, Acer, MSI, and so on have teams of engineers devoted to testing new OSs and ironing out kinks in their hardware, with help from engineers at Microsoft.
  • If you love to upgrade and experiment, more power to you. I used to build PCs from scratch, even soldering them together from parts. Then again, you can also build your own car. (I used to just about do that myself, too.) Or you can buy it preassembled from some company in Detroit or Japan. It really isn't worth spending much time fiddling with PC hardware unless you assemble systems for some specific purpose. Given amazingly low prices for computers these days, don't waste your time. And don't cut corners in configuring a new machine, either. For an extra $50, you can get goodies such as a modem, network card, and faster video card thrown in. Add more bells and whistles up front and save yourself some hassle down the road.
  • Run Windows Update frequently or set it to run itself.
  • Schedule hard disk defragmentation (see Chapter 24) and make sure you have a decent amount of free space on your drives, especially your boot drive. Remember that Windows 7's defragmenter requires at least 15% empty space on each drive you want to defragment.
  • Get an extra external hard disk of equal size or larger than your computer's internal hard disk. Use an automated backup program, such as the File and Folder Backup built into Windows 7, to automatically back up your important stuff on a frequent basis. (Mine runs every night.) Disks are cheap these days, and your time, contacts lists, emails, and documents are valuable!

Printed with permission from Que Publishing. Copyright 2009. Windows 7 In Depth by Robert Cowart and Brian Knittel. For more information about this title and other similar books, please visit Que Publishing.

About the book
This chapter excerpt on Installing and Replacing Hardware (download PDF) is taken from the book Microsoft Windows 7 In Depth. The book has information on various Windows 7 topics, including installing and upgrading Windows 7, multimedia and imaging, networking, maintenance and security.

About the authors
Robert Cowart has written for PC Week, Mac World, A+, PC World and Microsoft Systems Journal. Cowart has authored 32 books and has written more Windows books than any other author. He has taken part in the PBS TV series Computer Chronicles and has several bestseller books, including Windows NT 4 Unleashed.  

Brian Knittel is a software developer, consultant and writer that specializes in document conversion and networking. Knittel studied at the University of California at Berkeley and co-wrote Special Edition Using Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional and Special Edition Using Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition.

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How Windows 7 hardware upgrades affect licensing 

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