You can spend thousands of dollars on components when building a PC, but it isn't going to boot without an operating system. Though Linux is a viable option, most people still want Windows because it runs all of their favorite software, including all the latest games.
Getting hold of the Windows installer is as easy as visiting support.microsoft.com. Whether you've paid for it or not, Microsoft allows anyone to download a Windows 10 ISO file and burn it to a DVD, or create installation media on a USB drive for free. Once that's done, you can boot from your installation media and install. During the installation process, Microsoft will ask you to for an activation key. You can skip it at this stage and enter it once Windows 10 is installed. But eventually, Windows is going to start letting you know that your install isn't activated.
There are many ways to get a Windows 10 product key, and they range in price from totally free to $199 (depending on which flavor of Windows 10 you're after). You can of course buy a key from Microsoft online, but there are other websites selling Windows 10 keys for less. There’s also the option of downloading Windows 10 without a key and never activating the OS. But are you missing out on anything important if you don’t activate Windows 10? And will your carefully crafted rig face any risks if you go this route?
Below we outline the top ways you can get Windows 10, from cheapest to most expensive, and the downsides of each option.
|Using an Old Key||Not Activating Windows||Buying a Cheap Key From a Third Party||Buying a Key From Microsoft|
No desktop watermark;
Access to all personalization options;
Access to Microsoft support
|Zero cost||No desktop watermark;|
Access to all personalization options;
Access to Microsoft support
|No desktop watermark;|
Access to all personalization options;
Access to Microsoft support;
|Cons||There’s a small chance Microsoft will reject activation, and you’ll have to call the company||Desktop watermark; |
Personalization options restricted;
No access to Microsoft support
|There's a small chance your key won't work, and you'll have to deal with support to get it fixed;|
Some third parties don't offer refunds
Using an Old Key: Free
Nothing’s cheaper than free. If you’re looking for Windows 10 Home, or even Windows 10 Pro, it’s possible to get the OS onto your PC without paying a penny. If you already have a software/product key for Windows 7, 8 or 8.1, you can install Windows 10 and use the key from one of those older OSes to activate it. According to How to Geek, this method worked as recently as January 5. But note that a key can only be used on 1 PC at a time, so if you’re going to use that key for your new build, any other PC you have running that key is out of luck.
Downsides of Using an Old Key
When using an older Windows key to activate Windows 10, you may run into complications if Microsoft isn't sure whether you're eligible to update or not. In that case, you’d have to call a number and go through a process of entering your key and getting a code. But that seems to be happening less in recent months and years.
Not Activating Windows: Free
If you don't have a valid key, you can still use Windows 10 on your PC even if you don’t activate it. I’ve spoken with colleagues that have used non-activated versions of Windows for years without ever seeing Microsoft shut it down. In this way, you can have Windows 10 Home or Pro running on your PC nearly flawlessly. Nearly.
Downsides of Not Activating Windows
PCs using Windows 10 without activation will be branded with a watermark in the bottom-right corner of the screen. A Microsoft spokesperson told me that activating Windows 10 ensures you have a legitimate copy of Windows 10, and the watermark is an attempt to alert consumers that their version may be false. However, if you downloaded your ISO directly from Microsoft, there's no way it can be a fake.
“If the user [installs Windows 10] before activating Windows, they will see an ‘Activate Windows’ watermark on their desktop, as well an experience a limit on Windows 10 personalization options,” Microsoft said in a statement.
Further blemishing the visual aesthetics of Windows 10 is the lack of personalization you’ll have to endure. If you don’t activate Windows 10, you won’t be able to change Personalization options in the Settings menu. That means no access to personal desktop wallpapers, slideshow backgrounds, Start, taskbar, Action Center or title bar colors, light or dark color schemes, font choices or lock screen options.
The lack of custom aesthetics can be a real downer, especially if you like to liven things up by changing colors and images. However, we checked, and you can still change your wallpaper if you right click an image from the web or a personal photo and set it as your wallpaper. And if you have a wallpaper tied into your Microsoft account, it will appear if you sign into Windows with that account.
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft won't offer any Windows 10 technical support without activation. If you call or chat with their techs, they will ask you for your key to begin, and you’ll have no response.
A newer and lesser concern, is that you’ll also be barred from getting your hands on the new Redstone 5 ISO without an activation key. Released this month, the ISO is only available to Windows Insider Program members with a Windows 10 key or device activated with Windows 10. However, commercial availability the new version of Windows is expected this fall.
Buying Cheap Windows 10 Keys: Around $30
If you can’t stand living with the scarlet letter of an eternal watermark or want the comfort of knowing Microsoft won’t disown your PC’s OS should you call for help, you’ll have to buy a Windows 10 key. And while some turn to Microsoft for this purchase, there are third-party websites selling keys for much cheaper than Microsoft. For example, Kinguin currently sells Windows 10 Home for $28.13, PCDestination has it for $44.99, Software Pug’s pushing it for $99 and Amazon and Newegg charge $109.99.
First, to address the elephant in the room. Yes, websites selling lower priced Windows keys are selling legitimate keys. These websites sell Windows (and other software keys) for discount prices the same way a Marshalls or TJ Maxx sells a genuine Michael Kors bags for a cheaper price. They’re selling the same OS but from various merchants, which acquired them at a low price, sometimes from wholesalers, or have a surplus.
One such site, Kinguin, has 37 merchants worldwide selling Windows keys. Mark Jordan, Kinguin’s VP of communications, told me those merchants have sold “several hundred thousand” keys. It’s not like these are one-time sellers posting listings for keys they don’t want. As part of its fraud protection, a Kinguin employee randomly buys a key “every now and then” to make sure they’re legitimate, Jordan said. He added that it’s rare for a customer to get a key that’s been resold, but if they did, customer support would help them get a new one for free.
“If there's ever a problem with a key being already activated or something like that, our customer support team helps you get a new key… And that merchant would be in deep trouble, so they are very careful with it,” Jordan said.
You’ll have to enter a key to activate Windows, but you won’t have a problem doing that if you bought your key from a place like Kinguin (or Amazon, Newegg, etc.). In fact, Microsoft still offers 24/7 technical support online and via phone even if you got your Windows 10 key from a site other than Microsoft.
If you do opt to get your key for less, make sure it’s from a legitimate site. A hint will be if that key is too cheap, i.e. free or close to free. Further, you shouldn't download Windows 10 from anyone besides Microsoft. As noted on Microsoft’s website: “When buying Microsoft software as a digital download, we recommend that you avoid auction sites and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing sites. At the moment there are a limited number of sites where you can legally purchase digital downloads of Microsoft software.”
“Genuine Windows is published by Microsoft, properly licensed and supported by Microsoft or a trusted partner. Non-genuine software results in a higher risk of malware, fraud, public exposure of your personal information and a higher risk for poor performance or feature malfunctions,” Microsoft added in a statement.
Downsides of Cheap Keys
These non-Microsoft websites have varying return policies for software key purchases. While Kinguin seems to have an open return policy, PCDestination returns can only happen if the key can’t be activated, and have to be requested within 60 days.
Meanwhile, you’ll have to pay an extra $20 at the time of purchase if you hope to get a free refund for your key from Software Pug (although that $20 also entitles you to extra installation support). And Amazon and Newegg both have no-refund policies for software keys. Amazon claims all keys are sold on its site are genuine, and any gripes you have with your key must be handled by the individual vendors. If a key you get from Newegg doesn’t work, you’ll have to contact Newegg’s product support team to get a new key.
Still, most, if not all, sites seem willing to accommodate you if you happen to get a key that’s already been used or doesn’t work. Again, just make sure you’re buying your key from a legitimate source. For that reason we don’t recommend buying Windows 10 keys from individual sellers (or illegally).
This final downside is only applicable if you’re interested in equipping your build with Windows 10 Pro for Workstations. While I was able to find Windows 10 Home on a number of genuine key-selling websites and Windows 10 Pro on some (although fewer) websites, I couldn’t find a key for Windows 10 Pro for Workstations anywhere besides Microsoft. The most advanced and pricey ($309) member of the Windows 10 clan, Windows 10 Pro for Workstations offers “support for the next generation of PC hardware, up to 4 CPUs and 6TB of memory,” according to Microsoft’s website. But it’s unlikely you’ll need the juggernaut of Windows 10 for your personal machine.
Buying a Windows Key From Microsoft: $139+
Want a version of Windows 10 where you can enjoy dynamic slideshows on your home screen, vibrant red, green, pink, or purple taskbars? Do you enjoy the thrills of a watermark-free screen and the comfort of knowing you can call Microsoft for support if you have any problems? Then you need a key, which you can get from various retailers. But if you want to avoid any chance of getting an unusable key or you want to guarantee the ability to get a full refund even if there’s no problem with the key, your best bet is to buy from Microsoft.
In addition to selling keys for Windows 10 Home and Pro, Microsoft is the only place you can get a key for Microsoft Pro for Workstations. Additionally, Microsoft offers the Assure Software Support Plan for an extra $149. This plan is valid for a year, starting when you activate Windows 10. It’s applicable for up to five devices and entitles you to online, phone support and one-on-one in-store training. One caveat: Microsoft notes that the plan is “for purchase and activation only in the region in which it was acquired.”
Downsides of Buying from Microsoft
The price also fails to entitle you to any support perks. Microsoft’s 24/7 basic phone and online support is available to anyone with a Windows 10 key, even if you didn’t get it from Microsoft. After already investing time and money building your PC, it can be difficult to convince yourself to spend over $100 for an OS when you can get it with the same specs and support for cheaper.
Which Method Is Right for You?
If you have an old Windows key you can carry over from a previous build, clearly that's what you should do. If you don't have a key on hand, you need to decide whether you're comfortable using an unactivated version of Windows 10, which limits your customization options, has an ugly watermark and leaves you ineligible for support from Microsoft. Also, many would argue that downloading Windows without paying for or already having a product key is morally wrong. That said, Microsoft has made this process easier over various Windows iterations and lessened the limitations and nagging that happens when you don't activate. The company isn't trying to close this loophole.
So, if you decide you need to buy a Windows 10 key, it's hard to argue against purchasing one from a low-cost seller such as Kinguin or PCDestination. Microsoft's price is astronomically high and doesn't offer any significant benefits. You can save $100 or more by buying a key from one of these third-party sites, which is money you can spend on a better graphics card, a roomier SSD, or a few AAA games for your new PC.