This article, written by me, originally appeared in The AskWoody PLUS Newsletter on May 25th, 2020.


No. Nope. Not even on Fridays.

That could be the end of the discussion, but I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging. So let’s dive into this weird phenomenon of cheap Windows 10 product keys — and shine some light on the issue.

In addition, I’ll share with you a legit and legal avenue for upgrading to Windows 10.

First, some background: Woody asked me to discuss this topic because I’m quite vocal on social media when I see supposedly legitimate technology websites championing “cheap and legal” Win10 licenses — either through ads or as part of a partnership.

If you see one of these promotions, and you ask yourself whether they’re for real, you’ve already answered the question.

Reddit is another place where questions about cheap licenses come up — frequently. My answer is always the same: “No! They’re not legitimate.”

Invariably, some commenters argue that the keys are simply hardware vendors (Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc.) selling off excess licenses.

But that won’t hold water. Sure, the OEMs purchase Windows licenses in bulk and at a significant discount, but the keys don’t have a “use by” date — so there’s no need for vendors to sell off their Win10 “inventory” at bargain-basement prices. (The price OEMs pay for Windows is rarely made public.)

WIndows Product Key Sticker Sample Image
Figure 1. Sample OEM product-key stickers (courtesy of Microsoft)

Another speculated “source” is abandoned Win10 systems. But a Win10 OEM key is tied to the original PC — and only that machine. You can’t transfer it to a replacement system. (Retail versions of Win10 may be transferable.)

Note that not all “cheap” OEM licenses come from dubious websites. Components such as motherboards and disk drives sometimes include a Win10 key. Are they legitimate? Yes and no. They’re real keys and will probably activate on your system. But they’re still not legitimate; Microsoft never intended that they would be tied to a separate component.

As you ponder how a Win10 license might cost only USD $10 or $20, you might ask:

Why would OEMs risk their contract and partnership with Microsoft just to sell a few keys for almost nothing? Undoubtedly, the revenue from selling new PCs far outweighs the few dollars they would earn from these sideshow deals.

And if there were such a thing as excess or expiring Win10 keys, wouldn’t an OEM simply sell them from its official website?

Those observations should make you go “Hmmmmm.”

Buying a “cheap key” can have serious consequences. If Microsoft discovers that a key is stolen or being improperly used, Windows can be deactivated by the company’s validation servers. In that case, your system will report that it might not be running genuine Windows software. According to the MS support page “About Genuine Windows,” you’ll experience the following:

“Until you correct the issue, you’ll receive periodic reminders that Windows is not genuine. Your desktop may also turn black to emphasize the messages. You can reset it, but it will return to black every 60 minutes until the issue is resolved.

“Windows will always be able to get critical security updates, even if your version isn’t genuine. However, other updates and benefits are available exclusively for genuine Windows software.”

Living with that is certainly not worth a $10 gamble.

But here’s where things get confusing — and it’s mostly due to Microsoft’s inconsistent application of its own licensing. If you purchase one of these “cheap” Win10 keys, it’ll probably work — and continue to do so for possibly days, weeks, months, or even years!

There are, of course, a significant number of Win10 users who’ll take their chances and try to beat the clock. And when the current copy suddenly deactivates and makes the machine virtually unusable, they’ll simply purchase another $10 OS license. That’s the only explanation for the never-ending stream of Windows 10 “deals” pervading the Web.

The cottage industry’s strategy for illegitimate Win10 licenses is akin to that of scammers and phishers: If you send out many thousands of come-ons and just a few percent respond, it’s profitable.

A valid upgrade technique

I’m sure this article won’t convince everyone using an unauthorized copy of Windows 10 to come clean. But let me offer a method that could let you legally upgrade to Windows 10. It’ll help you avoid that every-60-minutes-black-desktop disruption on your PC.

Here’s the real deal: If you’re running a legitimate and genuinely activated consumer PC with Win7 or Win8 installed, you can still upgrade for free to Windows 10. The new copy will activate under what Microsoft calls a Digital Entitlement (more info). The new license will be tied to that one device and associated with your Microsoft account.

There are two methods for performing this upgrade. Begin by visiting the Microsoft Download Windows 10 website (see Figure 2).

Get Windows 10 Download
Figure 2. Microsoft’s Download Windows 10 website

1) Click the Update now button to initiate an immediate in-place upgrade of your current device. You’ll be guided along the upgrade path, which will include choosing whether to keep your files and other options.

2) Click on the Download tool now button if you would prefer to create installation media so that you can do a clean install of this device. Make sure you have the Windows 7 or Windows 8 product key, most likely on a Certificate of Authenticity sticker on the device, before you start a clean installation.

Either method will install a legitimate copy of Windows 10 — with no worries about black desktops.

If you were unaware of that option and bought one of the “cheap” Win10 licenses, you can possibly still make things right. Just get the original Win7 or Win8 product key off the PC and use one of the two aforementioned upgrade methods from Microsoft. Enter the key when prompted.

Now when someone asks whether your Windows 10 installation is legit, you can answer:

“Why, yes! It is.”

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