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My New PC and Why Windows Vista Activation Sucks

I unexpectedly ended up with a new PC last week. Sitting in the bath, still waking up, I heard lizzie complain that our internet wasn't working, and she thought it was a DNS issue because her IRC session was still up. Sounded reasonable. She then pointed out that vindaloo (our fileserver, as well as dns and dhcp server) was turned off. Uhoh. Vindaloo's never turned off. It doesn't even know how to turn itself off.

Long story short, after a little shopping around, we ended up at Comet because they seemed to have a decent deal on a PC that wasn't going to cost the earth, looked like it was made from standard (i.e. upgradeable) components (I'm looking at you, Dell), didn't come with a monitor and I could pick up that evening. A quick hardware swap later, and I have a new desktop PC, and vindaloo has the components from my old desktop.

I've ended up with an Acer T180 with the following spec for £300 (inc vat):

This PC is especially remarkable in that the case is of a decent quality (including tool-less screws and component mountings), the PSU is a standard 250 watt ATX model, and it has 2 free memory (DDR2-5300) slots. In addition it has a real PCI Express x16 port, unlike most cheapy PCs, so I can stick a real graphics card in there. There's a bunch (4 internal and 1 external) of empty 3.5" drive bays that appear to be reasonably cooled. It even came with an additional cooling fan fitted, and a mouse and keyboard in the box.

The onboard graphics hardware sucks especially since it only has a VGA port, but that was easily remedied with a quick trip to PC world, where the cheapest DVI capable video card was a 128MB GeForce 7100GS. Nothing special, but seems to play C&C3 ok, and I've reclaimed the 256MB of ram that the onboard card was stealing.

All in all, I'm very impressed - it was cheap and offers reasonable room for upgrade. Next stop is a better PSU, another gig of ram, and a better video card. An additional bonus is that it's quieter than my previous (already pretty quiet) PC.

Vista Activation

Naturally, the first thing I did once I'd powered this PC up to check it works was to reinstall the OS. Remarkably it came with a proper Vista install DVD rather than some custom OEM 'restore' disks. This way I get to remove all the pre-installed rubbish that comes on the machine and repartition it more suitably. Especially important, since Norton had got its bloaty horrible claws into the initial install.

The Vista install went smoothly, and pretty much found the right drivers for all the hardware by itself.

It was a couple of days later I noticed in the System Information screen that I had just 'two days left' until vista activation. I clicked the 'activate now' button, figuring I may as well get it over and done with.

A few seconds later, I'm presented with a message reading 'The product code you entered is not valid for activation'. Hmm. I double checked the license number on the side of my PC, and re-entered it to make sure. Same message.

Vista helpfully gave me the option of using their automated phone activation system or purchasing a new license code. I decided to give the phone activation a try although I wasn't sure why this should work when the online activation didn't. This is where the pain begins...

Once you choose the phone activation option, you're presented with a 54 digit number, in 9 blocks of 6 digits.

Vista phone activation

You phone the number they give you (freephone, at least), then type in the 54 digits. You wait. The automaton on the end tells you there's a problem with your activation (no shit, sherlock) and they'll transfer to to a human. Woohoo. What they don't tell you is that it's a human in Bangalore or some other place where the call center staff are underpaid and overscripted.

The operator asks me in broken english to read out the first 6 digits of the 54 character number. Then the second set of 6. Oh god, make it stop. Fortunately, that seems to be enough for them to identify the attempt. "There's a problem with that product code, please wait" comes the almost inevitable reply. I subconsciously start composing a complaint in my head when the operator returns. "Is this the first time you've used this key?". "Sorry?", I ask, not quite catching the question the first time.
"Is this the first time you've used this key?", in exactly the same monotone manner. I'm not sure I'm actually talking to a real human.
"It's the first time I've used the key, yes. It came with my PC, which I've just reinstalled".
"OK, Please hold"....

I wait.

"How many PCs is this product code installed on?".
"Just the one."
"OK, Please hold while I generate your activation code". Human? Really?

I expect another long wait, but I'm somewhat startled as the operator returns unexpectedly. "I will read you the activation code in blocks of six numbers, ok?"
"uhh, sorry?"
"I will read you the activation code in blocks of six numbers, ok?"
I'm sure they're learning this phonetically...
"Yes, go ahead"
"one six four"
"one six four"
"one six four"
"I just entered that".
"yes, one six four one six four"
"oh"
"seven six five..."

Still, at least there's only eight blocks of six digits to deal with this time. Good job I can enter numbers with my eyes closed. I'm still imagining the level of confusion this would cause someone like my Mum.

This kind of copy protection only serves to annoy the legitimate consumer. Casual pirates won't be fazed by this, and I doubt it hinders the serious pirates. What it does do is treat the honest consumer like a criminal, being forced to prove that the copy of an OS you've just bought really belongs to you. I'm pretty certain I could have cracked the copy protection in less time than it took to try and fight my way through the activation process, and there's something fundamenally wrong with that.

Fuck you, Microsoft. Next time I'm buying a Mac, and I'll be advising my family to do the same.


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