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Product Key vs. Activation Key (Explained)

Product Key vs. Activation Key (Explained)

Think of a product key as a password or a pin that allows you to access the software once you have legally purchased it. The product key allows the activation of your software on your PC. Hence it’s also called an activation key.

Software developers use product keys as a way to prevent unauthorized users from accessing the software. This is why only those who have bought the software through a legitimate source or from the developers directly can enjoy the complete version of the software.

When you purchase licensed software, the product key acts as proof or verification. Once you install that software on your computer, entering the product key verifies you as a legitimate user. It enables the software developers to be in control of the security and authenticity of the software.

Is the Product Key the Same as an Activation Key?

A product key is also called a license key, product ID, activation key, or serial key. Irrespective of the name, the goal is to protect the authenticity of the software and limit its access to only legitimate buyers.

Depending on the software developer and company, the key can be given any name, but the activation process is quite similar. A product key is an alphanumeric string of 25 characters arranged with a discrete arrangement.

A product key can look something like:


An activation key might have a different length and arrangement of characters.

For example:




Depending on the terms and conditions of your license agreement, it can forbid the user from installing it on multiple PCs using the same product key.

When you install software, it requires you to enter the relevant product key to complete the activation process. Without a product key or an activation key, the installation of your software is likely to halt at that stage, or you will get a trial version of the software.

Depending on the developer, some software or programs allow users to have limited access to the software without an activation key, with reappearing reminders to install or purchase the full version.

How Do You Find Your Product Key?

Every program or software that’s not free, requires a product key. A product key is a set of characters usually printed on the packaging of the product.

However, this isn’t always the case. Depending on the manufacturers, a product key can be found on a label or sticker placed on the product somewhere.

Some developers send a verification e-mail with the product key to their consumers. 

How Does a Product Key Work?

Product keys ensure that anyone installing software has bought the legitimate version of it and has made a verified purchase for the software.

Once you install software, it goes through an activation process. The activation process can vary depending on the program or software that needs activation. However, some basic steps are the same.

Once you start the installation process, it may ask you to enter a product key. This product key can be found either on the packing or on the product itself. If you’re not buying the software directly from the source, you can ask your vendor to provide you with a product key,

Some software lets you skip the option for the time being, this enables you to experience a trial version of the software, with limited features. The trial period can vary anywhere between 14 to 30 days. Once it’s over, you are blocked from accessing the software without entering the product key.

Once you enter the product key, an algorithm verifies it, allowing you complete access to the software.

However, the use of a product key eventually failed to provide effective security to the developer and the user, as the use of product key generators became common. This allowed copyright infringements and unlimited access to software and programs.

Therefore, many software developers use an intricate product activation process that minimizes the risk of fraud and unauthorized access.

What Is Product Activation?

Product activation usually combines the product key with the serial numbers of the computer hardware components. This personalized key is sent to the developer, who verifies the purchase and authorizes access to the user.

Since the product key generated contains hardware information unique to that computer, this intercepts the generation of counterfeit product keys and limits users from using the same product key to run the software on multiple devices.

The developers then send back a unique set of activation codes that allows the user to access the software either for a limited or an unlimited period, depending on their license agreement.

All You Need to Know About Microsoft Product Keys

All you need to know about Microsoft product keys

Microsoft uses a 25-character long product key that activates the windows once you install them on your computer. The product key can either be printed on a card or sent to you through a verification e-mail. This depends on whether you purchased your copy of windows.

If you bought your PC with Windows pre-installed, the product key is located somewhere on your device.

Since product key didn’t prove to be the most efficient way to prevent copyright infringement, Microsoft has adopted a new method of activation called digital licensing.

A digital license doesn’t require you to enter a product key. It’s based on your PC and Microsoft account. Once you log in to your Microsoft account, your windows activate automatically without the need for entering a product key. Windows 10 and the next version of windows use digital licensing.

If you have windows 7 or windows 8 you can simply update to the new version of windows without the need of using a new product key.

How Do You Activate Your Windows 10 Product Key?

Windows 10 can be activated either by a digital license or a product key. The digital license is linked to your Microsoft account.

However, if you’re buying a PC pre-installed with Windows 10, the product key is either printed on your device packing or on the certificate of authentication, provided to you with the device.

If you’re buying a box or a digital copy of Windows 10 for an authorized seller, then a product key is required for activation. The product is provided to you through an email or printed on the box.

Bottom Line

A product key and activation key share the same purpose, which is to prevent unauthorized access and installation of the software. Product activation enabled only those who have legally purchased the software to have complete access.

This helps the software developer protect the authenticity of the software or program. However, since product keys can be lost or counterfeited, companies and software developers have now adapted intangible methods of activation like digital licensing.

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Click here to view the web story on product keys and activation keys.

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