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Are discount Windows 10 licenses legal, and do they work?

Windows 10 is a must-have for a majority of new PCs (Source: flickr.com)
Windows 10 is a must-have for a majority of new PCs (Source: flickr.com)
Windows 10 is one of the most expensive pieces of software that many users will buy. If you're looking at significantly discounted license keys, here's what you should know about where they come from, how they work, and if they're the right option for you.

There are plenty of reasons to build your own PC. Not only is it fun and rewarding, it gives you complete control over your components and ensures that you're intimately familiar with exactly how your computer is set up - not just the hardware, but the software, too. Manufacturers bundle varying degrees of software in with their pre-built PCs, ranging from convenient update apps to certifiably resource-hogging bloatware. So, if you want to start fresh with a streamlined operating system - or if you missed the free Windows 10 upgrade period - buying a new product key is all but a requirement.

Even if you've already shelled out a cool US$1,000 or more on a complete set of shiny, new parts, when the time comes, the extra cost of buying into Windows 10 can sting a little. After all, the Home version alone is over US$100, and if you're a power user, you might be interested in features like software data encryption, remote access, and virtual machine capabilities offered by Windows 10 Professional, which runs about US$200. Even upgrading from Home to Pro carries a roughly US$100 price tag. Some users find it a good idea to activate Windows because simply downloading the OS and using it without activation blocks some helpful customization features while badgering you with an annoying watermark in addition to reminding you periodically about activation, and, in some cases, can delay or even prevent the installation of security updates, which can lead to a host of other headaches. So you'll need to get your hands on a key somehow. (note: this was inaccurate, see the update below)  You can, of course, use an unactivated copy of Windows for an indeterminate period of time, as evidenced by the esteemed Linus of Linus Tech Tips, as you'll see in the video linked below, but even he has plenty of legitimate licenses on hand to cover all of his test benches.

We've come a LONG way from installing Windows 1.44 MB at a time
We've come a LONG way from installing Windows 1.44 MB at a time

As you might imagine, there are ways to avoid the associated fees, but to be completely honest, we wouldn't recommend them for most users.

On various sites - some with better reputations than others - you can find Windows 10 keys from somewhere around US$30 to as low as US$5. These keys fall into one of a few different categories, and some of them aren't exactly "illegal," per se. To be clear, any license key that was purchased with stolen payment information, or any key that was generated using a software crack, is actually illegal, whether it's an operating system or a game. But a lot of the discount Windows keys available online aren't acquired through such nefarious means.

Two of the most popular ways of acquiring inexpensive Windows licenses are through grey market keys and distribution licenses. Grey market licenses are purchased in other countries where Microsoft simply charges less for the same product. Often referred to as "OEM keys," distribution licenses are surplus keys sold by computer manufacturers and resellers or, in similar cases, subscribers to the Microsoft Software Developer Network (or "MSDN"). While it's not against the law, buying one of these licenses for personal use is absolutely against the almighty Terms of Service. The FBI won't show up at your door, but these inexpensive alternatives have their own share of drawbacks.

Licenses purchased from other regions may check your location using your IP address to ensure that you're installing them where they were meant to be used. Savvy users will know ways around this location check, but you do run the risk of being found out and having your activation invalidated, especially if you try to tie your installation into any other Microsoft services. On the other hand, surplus keys purchased from PC resellers or MSDN subscribers may not even work right from the start - some less-than-honest grey market retailers sell the same license to multiple buyers, and such websites are notorious for having little to no customer service. Other such licenses have been to known to simply stop working one day, with zero fanfare or warning. You should be even more suspect of surplus licenses that ship to you with their own copy of Windows 10 on a USB flash drive - these keys are often encoded to work with only the exact copy of the software they ship with, so if you lose that tiny flash drive, you now have a useless string of letters and numbers on your hands. For that matter, the same encoding strategy is sometimes used to keep people from activating a desktop PC, for example, using the license that came with their laptop. That's not even getting into the risks that can come with the actual act of purchasing software keys from shady overseas websites.

License keys and downloads sourced from shady websites can cause numerous problems
License keys and downloads sourced from shady websites can cause numerous problems

So why spend the extra money on a legitimate Windows 10 license? While you're only technically allowed to use each copy of Windows 10 on one single computer, spending the money on the real deal gives you lifetime rights to install that copy of Windows on any one of your PCs. If you upgrade your current setup or start completely fresh in the future, you're more than welcome to use the same license again without any hassle. Speaking of hassle, activating a grey market or distribution license can be a bit of a headache, but activating one bought straight from Microsoft or a reputable software reseller is (more often than not) a relative walk in the park.

If you're dead set on activating and saving some cash, know what you're getting yourself into. The places you'll find these grey market and distribution licenses may look like legitimate software resellers, but actual grey market vendors are typically individuals with little or nothing to verify their legitimacy. There are quite a few sites out there where you can find these sellers, and you may have run into some such as Kinguin and G2A, which don't have nearly the same buyer protections as more reputable dealers like Amazon and Newegg. Even if there is some unforeseen problem with your purchase, a well known retailer like one of these should take care of it. If you do decide to go the more frugal, yet non-guaranteed route, make sure to have a card or payment account that allows for international transactions, and be prepared for any of the above disappointing scenarios to play out, possibly after a frustrating activation experience.

While it is possible to save US$80-US$180 buying a non-standard Windows 10 license, it's in most users' best interests to splash the cash on at least one copy, and rest easy knowing that they'll retain the rights to use that software for the duration of its lifetime, with the added bonus of a simple activation process as well as the peace of mind of getting security and feature updates on time. If you do decide to go down the discount route - which, again, we do not recommend - your mileage may vary, but if something goes wrong, don't say you weren't warned!

Update 3/25/2020:

Thanks to our many fine readers for all their honest opinions and constructive feedback! Here are some clarifications:

First, this is all from a USA perspective; other regions may and do have different consumer protections. Also of note, the only time a discount Windows license is actually illegal is when it was purchased using stolen payment information or generated using crack software, both extremely rare cases. It's up to you whether you care about violating the Terms of Service. Plus, each type of discount key can have its own specific set of issues that likely won’t overlap with the others’. You may well get lucky and get a working key, or you may, like some of us have, find the extra hassle not worth your time.

Most importantly, I was quite wrong about the security update issue; actually, I got it completely backwards. The only updates you’re actually guaranteed to receive are the critical security updates. In fact, you’ll probably get most of the same updates a fully registered copy would. Plus, if you don’t mind missing out on some minor features, you can get by without ever activating Windows at all, but once again, that's technically not a legitimate usage.

Thanks again for everyone's valuable responses.

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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > News > News Archive > Newsarchive 2020 03 > Are discount Windows 10 licenses legal, and do they work?
Christopher Thomas, 2020-03-23 (Update: 2020-03-27)