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Your product key must be entered when you install Windows, and can be wrong as many times as you like. Activation happens separately and later.
How many attempts are allowed to Activate a new Windows OS before it forces a phone call to MS? Over the years, I've owned many computers with XP, and like a fool, I just put the CD's into a case with little description. I did write down the Product Keys but failed to keep them with the CD's. Dumb, I know, but it happened. I want to format one laptop and install fresh, but when the Windows installation prompts for the Product Key, I have eight legitimate keys, but not certain which one fits this CD. I could try all eight to see which one works, but I've heard that after "X" number of attempts, Windows will allow no more, and I have to call MS. Do you know what is "X"?
No, I don't.
But the good news is that it probably doesn't matter, because I think you're comparing Apples and Oranges.
Having the right product key to go along with your CD isn't quite what you think it is, and on top of that, while it's a part of activation it's not the part you think it is.
Good and confused?
Let's fix that.
To begin with, product keys aren't tied to the CD in the way that you think they are. Each CD does not have its own unique key.
A product key must match the product and CD version - meaning that if the CD you have is Windows XP with SP2 pre-installed, then any product key that came with a Windows XP with SP2 CD will work.
Caveat: I'm going to assume that different production runs of the same product may use different sets of keys, so that may technically not be true. But if you pick up, say, 4 identical copies of Windows XP at the same time from the same manufacturing run, then yes - you can shuffle the product keys that came with them and use any of the keys with any of the CDs.
In fact, I often save all the keys, and discard all but one of the CDs.
Now, as soon as you have a variation in the product - say the original Windows XP without any service pack preinstalled - then the keys used for that product will likely not work with CDs of Windows XP with SP2.
Similarly, the product keys you get for OEM versions of Windows will also likely not work with CDs of their retail equivalent. Even further, I'd be shocked if the product keys for international versions of the same product were interchangable.
So as long as you make sure that the key you have is for the correct product, then it may not matter at all what CD you use.
But failure - using the wrong product key - doesn't actually affect activation.
That's for a very simple reason: an improper product key will be rejected before you even get to activation. If the product key you're using is not appropriate to the product you're installing, it'll fail as soon as you've finished typing it in and press "Next". Windows activation was never attempted and never involved.
Those types of failures simply don't count as activation attempts.
Only after entering in the correct product key and proceding further in Windows setup will activation happen.
Activation may then fail later if that key - which we know matches at least the product we're setting up - has been used at least once before. If that specific product key has been used too many times that's typically taken as a sign of piracy, for example. If it's been used on a different machine, or if the machine it's been used on changes in some fundamental ways, then activation may kick in as well.
What it takes to get to the "call Microsoft" stage is unclear, but as I said - using the wrong product key won't even let you get that far.
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