After weeks of gruelling troubleshooting, I've finally had it confirmed by Microsoft Australia and USA -- something as small as swapping the video card or updating a device driver can trigger a total Vista deactivation.
Put simply, your copy of Windows will stop working with very little notice (three days) and your PC will go into "reduced functionality" mode, where you can't do anything but use the web browser for half an hour.
You'll then need to reapply to Microsoft to get a new activation code.
How can this crazy situation occur? Read on for the sorry tale.
The Problem — Just over a month ago I swapped over the graphics card on my Vista Ultimate box. There were some new DirectX 10-based titles out and I couldn’t get the benefit on my old DirectX 9 card. The swap-over went well and I went on my merry gaming way.
Then a few days ago I got a Windows Activation prompt – I had three days to activate Windows or I’d be bumped back to RFM (Reduced Functionality Mode). What the? My copy of Vista was activated, and a graphics card change shouldn’t have triggered deactivation... surely!
I was able to reactivate easily enough, although as the product key was already in use (by me!) I couldn’t reactivate automatically, but had to speak to a Microsoft customer service representative.
I got the code easily enough, but it didn’t explain why Vista had deactivated, so I got in touch with Microsoft about the problem.
They sent me some special utilities to run which gathered the history of hardware changes on that machine since activation, and it turns out that my disk controller had changed, so the graphics card change was the final change which tripped deactivation.
The only problem? I had never changed my disk controller at any point. Apparently because I had upgraded the Intel Matrix Storage Manager application, this was reported as a major hardware change event.
On their own, neither event was enough to trigger deactivation, but cumulatively they were.
The Activation Process — The documentation is still being updated by Microsoft, but the activation process for Windows Vista and Volume Activation 2.0 is essentially unchanged from Windows XP, except that with Vista it’s supposed to be more tolerant.
When the machine is first activated, Windows establishes a baseline based on the installed hardware, but interestingly the information is not gathered from hardware IDs (which are not necessarily unique), but from hardware information as reported by device drivers. Any changes away from this baseline are weighted depending on the change (for example, a new CPU counts much higher than new RAM) and once the baseline threshold is passed, Windows deactivates and a new activation request is generated.
The problem with using device drivers as the basis for activation information is that a change in the driver model which has the result of changing the way that the hardware information is reported back to Windows can be enough to register as a physical hardware change.
For example, if you install and activate Vista using some Microsoft drivers downloaded from Windows Update (which is a very common practice) but then discover that a manufacturer driver gives better functionality (as is often the case for audio, video, storage and network drivers) you are running the risk that the drivers use different reporting models and will register as a physical change.
So what this essentially means is that keeping your drivers up-to-date is a potentially very risky process, with all changes monitored and changes weighted cumulatively.
The Problem with Activation — As most tech enthusiasts would be aware, activation (and particularly Volume Activation 2.0 which is applied to every version of Vista available), is designed for one thing – to curb piracy.
The idea is that Windows monitors the hardware it’s installed on, and if you create an image of an activated machine and drop it onto another system, it will re-register the hardware serial number changes (via the drivers) and realise that it’s been installed on a different system.