Overview of Windows Vista Workarounds

/First published in 2007/

With that level of magnitude of popularity which is given for most Microsoft products, it is inevitable for Windows Vista to be cracked. There are two main reasons for that: first — there will be always people who do not want or cannot afford to pay the price, second — there are always people who are doing reverse engineering for fun. These two things are connected. You can call it piracy, but in a way it is no more than a “technical dance.” And as any dance it does not have any particular purpose or goal to achieve. I mean one crack is never enough. You can blame users for using these workarounds, but in my opinion, ultimately it is only a fuel to keep the enormous flame of Windows popularity.

§1 Frankenbuild / disabled by time

“Frankenbuild” appeared immediately after Windows Vista RTM release in November 2006. The idea was simple: in the final build (6000) two files with licensing information (pkeyconfig.xrm-ms, tokens.dat) are replaced with the keys from the RC1 / RC2 build. The solution worked for both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, although in case of 64-bit version there were three files to replace. As the result, Windows Vista could be activated with Beta/RC1/RC2 keys and used till June 2007. Microsoft (definitely not in a rush) released Windows Vista Validation Update (KB929391) to disable those frankenbuilds, but those who had put Windows Update in manual mode did not suffer.

§2 Fake KMS (Key Management Service) Activation Server

This method was complicated and would allow activating only Enterprise and Business edition of Windows Vista. You would need to run a fake KMS Activation Server from virtual machine (VMware Image was provided) or use the KMS servers run by hackers, that is via internet. This crack requires the user to go beyond ordinary PC use, and therefore did not become popular.

§3 Timer-stopper / disabled by Vista SP1

The idea behind this crack was to install Windows Vista without any key (thanks to Microsoft, it is possible with every Windows Vista installation DVD), and then to apply the patch to stop 30 days grace period countdown. So, it is always 30 days to activate. There are several versions of that patch with different level of “automation”, but all of them used to be workable.

§4 OEM BIOS Emulation A.K.A. “Paradox Crack” / disabled by Vista SP1

The idea here is to make OS think that you are running a certain OEM brand PC by modifying or emulating the BIOS info. Then with certain OEM installation key provided the activation would work.

There are several variants of this workaround. Let me quote the readme.txt file from hacker group PARADOX release, as it really explains the situation well:

“Microsoft allows large hardware manufacturers (e.g. ASUS, HP, Dell) to ship their products containing a Windows Vista installation that does NOT require any kind of product activation as this might be considered an unnecessary inconvenience for the end-user. Instead these so-called ‘Royalty OEMs’ are granted the right to embed certain license information into their hardware products, which can be validated by Windows Vista to make obtaining further activation information (online or by phone) obsolete. This mechanism is commonly referred to as ‘SLP 2.0’ (‘system-locked pre-installation 2.0’) and consists of the following three key elements:

1. The OEM’s hardware-embedded BIOS ACPI_SLIC information signed by Microsoft.
2. A certificate issued by Microsoft that corresponds to the specific ACPI_SLIC information. The certificate is an XML file found on the OEM’s installation/recovery media, usually called something like ‘oemname.xrm-ms’.
3. A special type of product key that corresponds to the installed edition of Windows Vista. This key can usually be obtained from some installation script found on the OEM’s installation/recovery media or directly from a pre-installed OEM system.
If all three elements match Windows Vista’s licensing mechanism considers the given installation a valid system-locked pre-activated copy (that does not require any additional product activation procedures). So the basic concept of the tool at hand is to present any given BIOS ACPI_SLIC information to Windows Vista’s licensing mechanism by means of a device driver. In combination with a matching product key and OEM certificate this allows for rendering any system practically indistinguishable from a legit pre-activated system shipped by the respective OEM.”

 Paradox emulation tool

§5 Vista Loader / Works with Vista SP1

Vista Loader (aka “SoftMode”) introduces a boot loader to emulate BIOS with SLIC table of selected OEM ID into memory during system startup. The latest version of Vista Loader is 2.1.2. As you can see from the screenshot below, the hackers made it really advanced. It even supports 32-bit and 64-bit (x86 and x64) Windows Vista.

Vista Loader

Infamous NoPe release of Windows Vista Ultimate with no activation, is actually based on Vista Loader. Upon booting, the first thing you may see is similar to this (in some hardware configuration you don’t see this):

Vista NoPe boot screen

One last important thing to mention about this Vista Boot Loader—Service Pack 1 (build 6001.18000) for Windows Vista does not kill the Vista Loader hack.

Here’s another example of new version of this crack: VistaLoader v3.0.0.1 by Dasumo:

Vista Loader by Dasumo

As you can see from the screenshot, the number of OEM variants have increased. I don’t know if the loader itself has been improved but you don’t see the booting screen anymore when computer starts.

While some of these OEM pictures seem new, it is the same Windows installation numbers working under the hood. This is what really amazing here: it has been exactly the same key for Ultimate version of Windows Vista used EVERYWHERE (even for the Paradox crack): 6F2D7-#####-#####-#####-932CC. [update 05 May 2008 I’ve just realized there are several leaked keys, at least 5 different for Ultimate edition, but the one mentioned is the most common] And Microsoft knows that very well. Now we have Service Pack 1, over promising the war with piracy, so why this installation key is still valid?? My best guess is that Microsoft is just playing the game when it is “fighting” Vista piracy, in reality it is just another way to promote self domination, because if Windows Vista is “free”, no one in Russia or China will install Linux.

I have also checked Microsoft update KB940510 for Windows Vista (released on 08 April 2008), it is supposed to “to detect activation exploits that bypass product activation and that interfere with usual Windows operation”. Guess what, it completely ignores Vista Loader crack.

§6 Brute-forcing of Windows Vista licensing system / Sort of Myth

As reported before, Website KezNews.com has published a VBscript contributed by someone with the nickname “Computer User”, which is a modification of original slmgr.vbs to manage licensing in Windows Vista. The idea is simple: check random combinations of installation keys to find a good one. You do not need an internet connection for that exercise, just the computing power. (Again, thanks to Microsoft, you can install any version of Windows Vista without key at all.) It is funny how people and internet community reacted to that, because by definition you need an indefinite period of time to find a key with this method. And, guess what, no one wants to wait.

This method is the most stupid method I have ever seen to crack Windows Vista. There is no beauty in this crack (compare with The BlueList key generator for Windows XP, for instance). In spite of that it has got attention by ZDNET , the Inquirer , and even Paul Thurrott and Leo Laporte in their “Windows Weekly 16: The Red Ring of Death” podcast. As the consequence, the poor guy “Computer User” was scared enough to claim his creation to be a joke. The truth is this script is not a joke nor a virus, it is a simply a technical nonsense. What a shame.

And silly enough, even if you eventually find one working key, there is no guarantee it is not used (bought) already by some other guys like me and you.

§7 “Official” Windows Vista Hacks

These two are not cracks really, but more workarounds. If applied properly, they are not even considered illegal. The fist one is the idea to install Windows Vista Upgrade from … Windows Vista.

1) Boot from your Windows Vista Upgrade DVD, do not enter any Product Key (Yes, it is possible), and proceed with installation. You will have to choose the edition you bought.
2) Once finished in the Windows Vista start setup from the same DVD and proceed with upgrade. Now you can use your Product Key for Upgrade version!

As you can see nobody’s checking at this point whether you own a legitimate version of XP Pro, for instance, to be able to upgrade or not. So, it is up to you—cheat or be fair.

As Paul Thurrott refers to Microsoft, you can upgrade “a compliant version of Windows, such as Windows Vista, Microsoft Windows XP, or Microsoft Windows 2000.” In other words, technically it is legal to upgrade Vista from Vista. I would like to ask you a rhetoric question — why would someone want to build-in this nice feature of installing Windows Vista without any key?

The second one, as reported by Neowin.net, is the ability to run Windows Vista for 120 days or 4 months (3 rearms). “All versions of Vista include Windows Vista Ultimate allow a 30-day free period without activation, except the corporate-oriented Vista Enterprise, which supports only a three-day trial. To extend, reset or restart the initial OOB grace period of Windows Vista to another 30 days, use the following steps:

1. Click on Vista Start button and key in Cmd in Start Search box.
2. Press on Ctrl-Shift-Enter to open Command Prompt with administrative credentials (equivalent to “Run as Administrator”).
3. In the Command Prompt, type the following command and press Enter when done: slmgr -rearm or you can use sysprep /generalize
4. Reboot the computer.
5. Rearm again when the remaining activation grace period timer counts down to 0 days. Rearm option resets the computer’s activation timer and reinitializes some activation parameters.”
After Windows Vista SP1
Service Pack 1 for Windows Vista disables most of the cracks mentioned above EXCEPT Vista Loader (or NoPe release).

Declaimer:

All mentioned above in this article is for the information purpose only. Please do not try the crack tools mentioned as it may be illegal and you can be prosecuted by the law.

If you like Windows Vista, buy it (OEM version is relatively cheap). Or try Mac—it may turn out to be even better!

 / Post from 2007 /

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