PC Problems: Beating the Windows XP activation expiry blues

I recently ran into trouble when the activation grace period on one of my Windows XP-based notebook PC’s expired. I had no idea that after that period, XP would suddenly deny me access to my computer, the internet and the data on its hard-drives. I immediately started looking around for ways to regain some access to my computer, before making my next decision regarding an operating system install/re-install.

The two options were to either illegally cheat the system, by downloading a Key Generator and effectively stealing a copy of Windows… or find some other legitimate work-arounds which would allow me to do what I needed most urgently. Like most people would in this situation, I needed to backup my emails, move documents and data off the drive onto an external, and deactivate a couple of registered programs via the internet.

Having been through system overhaul pains plenty of times before, the first thing I tried was rebooting the machine in Safe Mode. This is achieved by pressing F8 as the system first starts up. You should then see a DOS prompt screen which gives you a few variations of ‘Safe Mode’ for you to choose from. Unfortunately, the ‘with Networking’ option remains blocked after the activation period is over… but the regular ‘Safe Mode’ option provides some limited access to your system.

Next, when Windows login prompts appear, click ‘Later’ or ‘Not Now’ or whatever the obviously relevant option is to defer product activation. Unlike on regular boots, you’ll find yourself now staring at your familiar desktop, in crunchy, low-res ‘Safe Mode’ glory. From here, I was able to wrangle my data onto an external drive (at painfully slow speeds) and achieve one of my major goals. If my machine wasn’t an ACER 6930G laptop, I could have alternatively pulled out the HDD, and copied the files to another machine directly, via an external drive housing, or docking station. Confound you, XP! Confound you Acer!

My next step was to backup my email. I swear by Mozilla open-source software and use it wherever possible, so that meant backing up my profile and emails from Thunderbird, by using the wonderful little MozBackup utility. If you haven’t heard of this before, it makes backing up and restoring settings and data across a range of Mozilla applications a breeze. It’s allowed me t move my email account painlessly from machine to machine (including old emails) on many prior occasions. So I opened MozBackup, but unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with ‘Safe Mode’, the program did not work as per normal. It was not able to find my profile information, so I could not create a current backup of my Thunderbird profile and its contents.

As the cold sweat began, I somehow followed a run of links that lead me to the Tomorrow Times blog entry ‘How to login to an expired windows’. Thanks to Steve Seguin’s help, I was moments away from achieving my next two goals- to backup my email, and then deactivate some software licenses, so they could be reinstalled later… after a new, clean operating system install.

The method Steve Seguin recommends is a back-door entry of absolute genius and involves the help of Narrator, one of Windows XP’s Accessibility tools, which basically reads aloud whatever your mouse passes over in a charismatic robot voice. After booting your system normally, you start Narrator by pressing the Windows key in combination with the letter U. You then click in the top left corner of the Narrator dialogue box, and select ‘About’. From there, you click on the underlined hyperlink, and ‘Hey Presto!’ you now have have an Internet Explorer window which allows you to surf the net, or do as I did, go to File ? Open, locate and run a few programs. After running MozBackup successfully, and then deactivating the Adobe Production Premium Suite by running Photoshop in the same way, I had all my valuable data and software registrations off the PC, and I was ready for a clean install of a new operating system.

After that horrendous experience, I was ready to choose the path forwards. As I need to run the Adobe Creative Suite on a daily basis, I had to choose between Windows XP, Vista or the new Windows7 RC (release candidate). Since the later is currently available for free download, with full updates until mid 2010, I figured I’d give that a shot… but that’s another blog entry.

Dan Monceaux

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