A funny thing happens when you look for a product key in Windows 10 after doing the free upgrade: You won't find them.
In Windows 10, utilities like Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder or Belarc Advisor return generic product keys instead of authentic ones. Don't believe me? This is the key Windows 10 Pro users will see in KeyFinder or Belarc Advisor: VK7JG-NPHTM-C97JM-9MPGT-3V66T.
Let's try this PowerShell script from the Hexus forums on Windows 10 Pro. You should get this: T44CG-JDJH7-VJ2WF-DY4X9-HCFC6. That's the generic key for build 10240.
Not a real product key to be seen anywhere.
The reason for this is that Windows 10 changes Microsoft's traditional product key model, and if you ask me it's for the better.
Entitlements, not product keys
When you use the free upgrade to Windows 10 or pay for a digital retail version, you don't get a product key. Instead, your computer uses what Microsoft calls a digital entitlement.
"Upon upgrading to Windows 10, the activation state from a prior version of Windows (be it Windows 7, Windows 8 or a prior build of Windows 10) is seamlessly carried over," a Microsoft spokesperson told PCWorld. "Once activated, a digital entitlement for your PC's hardware is created in the Windows 10 activation service.This entitlement can be used by the same PC again for re-activation of the same Edition of Windows 10 in the future."
It looks like the product key is on its way out, at least as far as users are concerned. After installation, your version of Windows 10 should just activate in the background in a few moments or a few days at the most. You can check your activation status by going to Settings > Update & Security > Activation.
Clean installs all the way down
Once your Windows 10 upgrade activates, you can grab a Windows 10 install image, do a clean install, skip the screen asking for product keys, and you should just re-activate again after the install is complete. I say should, because even in this brave new world without product keys I find it hard to believe there won't be a few installation horror stories involving product activation.
That said, I can vouch from personal experience that a post-upgrade clean install of Windows 10 just works. Shortly after I installed Windows 10 on my laptop, I swapped out my old spinning hard drive for an SSD. When I was done with the installation Windows activated right away.
For longtime Windows users the absence of product keys in Windows 10 digital installs is a relief and at the same time a little worrying. Based on the long history of activation horror stories, some of you out there may be a little suspicious of this new process. Although the notion of never having to use a product key ever again sounds great.
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