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When the Windows sticker becomes worn it is hard to read the product key. There is software to retrieve it from the installation, but that may not help.


Hi. Somehow I'm getting a message that Windows is not genuine. I know I'm supposed to put in the key code, however, I can't read the numbers on the bottom of my laptop. They're too worn. I get out the magnifying glass and I still can't see it. HP wants me to pay for help. The warranty's expired. My question is can I set my laptop to its default to solve this problem? Thank you.

In this excerpt from Answercast #98 I look at a Windows installation that is complaining that it is not genuine. That may make key retrieval difficult.

Can't read Windows product key

Well, I'm not really sure by what you mean by "setting to its default".

If you mean restoring from the recovery partition that HP, presumably, has provided you with? The best I can say is, maybe. It's not likely. I'm gonna say that it's not likely to help. And that's really the only restore to default that I'm aware of.

The other restore to default isn't a restore at all. It's a complete wipe of the computer and a reinstallation of a copy of Windows. In either case, I fully expect you to need a product key. Unfortunately the product key on your laptop, that's on that sticker, is the one you probably need.

Finding the product key

Now, a couple of things. You can, if you still have the paperwork from your purchase, you may find that the product key is written on that paperwork. If not, then I don't really have any good solutions for you.

I have prevention for the next computer you get. That is... always, save the product key somewhere in a safe place. Write it down; save that somewhere. Save product keys for Windows, for any applications that you purchase and install; all of that kind of stuff.

It's easy to replace the software. It's not easy to replace the product key.

Why we need product keys

Product keys, basically, represent your right to use the software. If you can't prove that you have that right; if you can't prove that you actually have a product key that shows you have that right, then the only alternative manufacturers typically have is to insist that you purchase a new one.

That's all about fraud. Anybody can walk up and say, "I can't read my product key, can you give me a new one?" If the manufacturer did that, they'd be giving away Windows for free to whoever happened to pull that scam. So we need a product key.

You may have to purchase new one.

Retrieve product keys

One thing you might do before you go that route - there are a couple of tools that may help. One is Belarc advisor. I've got an article on Belarc on my site. That will actually show you what the product key is for the software that's installed.

In other words, if you've got Windows running, you should be able to run Belarc advisor and have it tell you what the product key is. Do that; save it; see, for example, if it matches the beginning and the end of whatever you can see on that sticker. If it does, then you know you've got your product key.

Now the reason I'm reluctant or at least hesitant with this approach is that - if the product key is actually in the machine, and it's the right product key, I'm not really sure why it's complaining about being not genuine. So, I would have you do that.

Otherwise, like I said, you may be stuck having to purchase a new product key which basically boils down to a new copy of Windows.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6354 - March 18, 2013 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Paul Schmidt
March 19, 2013 9:29 AM

Confidently assuming that it's an OEM laptop, the key that Belarc would show you is an auto-activate key for the manufacturer. This is only good for the oem restores triggered from a "hot" key upon bootup.
If you're doing a clean install, you MUST use the key from the sticker on the bottom, as Leo says.
The auto-activate key will fail in this scenario.

March 19, 2013 9:34 AM

Magic Jellybean is a free app that recovers your product key. All you have to do is install and run it.
You can download it from Major Geeks. I've used them for years - no problems.

March 19, 2013 10:09 AM

Using the factory restore will get the computer working properly and will activate with a genuine product key. HOWEVER, your data will be gone - back up first. AND it will recover to the Windows version that came with the computer, so if you had XP originally on the laptop, and later updated to Win 7, it will be restored to XP. That might be the issue if the OP "borrowed" a DVD to upgrade Windows.

March 19, 2013 3:22 PM

I agree with "snert" Magic Jellybean is a great free app, just Google it!. You can also use it to find other "keys" on your laptop or PC, Office ect.

March 19, 2013 3:46 PM

I have a product key on my desktop tower (CPU), but it is NOT the same key that Magic JellyBean or other product key finders lists. I read what Paul S. wrote and I am understanding that because there are two product keys, the one that is on the CPU tower is the only one that will work for a clean install? This is a bit of a puzzle for me to learn that the product key number that Belarc lists is actually not the product for a clean install. I noticed my two numbers are completely different.

March 19, 2013 10:22 PM

Thank you for reminding me Leo! Belarc is great for retrieving, saving, and printing your Product ID codes for later use and reinstallation. In fact, I just did it now so I won't put it off, forget about it, and then wish prison terms or death sentences for those who produce packages with Product ID labels with print so small and ink so poorly printed you have to hunt a powerful magnifying glass to figure out and guess what the letters and numbers are.

March 19, 2013 10:31 PM

After a recent hard drive crash and replacement I was unlucky enough to have MS block my computer. I had to telephone a number in Singapore but that did not answer so tried the US - Great!! (but I digress) to receive a recorded voice program. So, proudly having my legal Product Key No. in front of me expecting to have to supply its details to the 'voice', I was surprised at only having to fill in 6 x 5 code numbers as supplied by the program for me to again be allowed to use my Windows XP. I would have thought that MS would have asked for it but perhaps they knew it all the time?

March 20, 2013 5:38 PM

Another good prevention (and I'm surprised Leo didn't mention it), is to take an image backup as soon as you get your new computer.

In that case, restoring that image backup would be like restoring to the default that the OP was asking about, and you would be guaranteed that the key in your computer was genuine (assuming you go the new computer from a legitimate source).

March 20, 2013 11:26 PM

@Darren - I would be a fellow warder with you

Mark J
March 21, 2013 1:28 PM

Taking an image backup as soon as you get a newr computer is a great idea. Leo has suggested this a number of times in other articles. In fact he even takes it a step further. Here's a prime example:
What should I do first with my new computer?

Thanks. I need all the help I can get. I fixed the link.

mick j
March 22, 2013 7:14 AM

product keys are a dime a dozen on the internet, and they work too. why pay twice for something you have already purchased? if i forgot my id to my safe, should i buy a new safe?

April 7, 2013 6:28 PM
is the Link Mark J referred to in his comments but the link hadn't been added yet to his comments.
Sorry Mark J. I just had to look in the Full Archive to find Leo's article that You talked about.
We ALL help each other, Thanks for Your help.

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