While there are a few technical exceptions, which we’ll explain below, the plain truth is that Windows can only be installed on one machine. The licence agreement issued by Microsoft is quite clear about this, and when you enter the product key during the installation process Windows locks that copy of the software to that particular PC.
It might seem perfectly reasonable to expect that an item you purchased can be used in ways that you deem fit, but Microsoft doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
But there are options open to those who want to move Windows 10 or even old favourite, Windows 7, to another PC.
Microsoft's policy might seem a little harsh, but Windows in a premium product that takes a huge amount of work to create and maintain, all of which costs money: Lots of money. Some might point to Apple, which for several years has given away its OS X operating system for free, but it wouldn't be a fair comparison.
Apple is primarily a hardware company that makes its revenue from selling the devices running its software, while Microsoft (for the main part) is a software and services company.
This argument is also less powerful these days because Microsoft did make Windows 10 available for free during its first year of release.
We can't emphasise enough that you should avoid the temptation to delve into the murky pools of ‘cracked’ copies that frequent the darker corners of Reddit, torrent sites and user forums. If you decide to take this path then not only are you breaking the law, but you’re handing over complete control of your PC and data to software that’s been tampered with by strangers on the internet who have no problem with criminal activity. We’re sure that won't end well.
What if I have Windows on a DVD or CD?
If you bought a boxed copy of Windows from a store, as opposed to the OEM copy that comes preinstalled on new PCs, then your options are a little more open. Microsoft allows you to move the software from one machine to another, but notice we said move rather than share, as the OS can still only be active on one PC at a time. The one exception to this is a Windows 7 Family Pack, which entitles users to simultaneously have the OS running on three different PCs.
To move a retail copy of Windows from one PC to another you first have to uninstall it from the previous PC and then install it on the new one. Before it can be activated you’ll also need to call Microsoft and explain what you’re up to. It’s a simple process which will have you up and running in no time at all.
On the new machine, in Windows 7, click Start and right-click on Computer. Select Properties then scroll down and click Activate Windows Now. You’ll now see a wizard launch which presents you with a menu that includes an option to Use the automated phone system to activate. Select this, choose your country from the drop down list, click Next, and you’ll be given a phone number that you can ring to confirm your details with Microsoft and activate Windows 7 on the new PC.
Can I move Windows 10 to a new computer?
It isn't the same process with Windows 10, as this doesn't have a product key, but instead a digital entitlement. But yes, you can move Windows 10 to a new computer so long as you bought a retail copy, or upgraded from Windows 7 or 8.
You're not entitled to move Windows 10 if it came pre-installed on a PC or laptop you bought.
One way to use Windows without buying a licence is to simply install it and not activate it. You can skip the entering of a product key during installation, and although Windows 10 will nag you and impose a few minor restrictions such as not being able to change the wallpaper, you'll basically have a functioning operating system.
Alternatives to Windows
If you have an old PC, or fancy building one, but don’t have a copy of Windows and don’t want to pay for one, there are other options. Linux has a wide range of impressive distributions that looks and feel like high-end software rather than the clunky, home-brew style that so often permeated the landscape a few years ago.
Ubuntu is the most prominent and probably best for new users, but many people have a soft spot for Linux Mint, whose layout should prove familiar to Windows user. If you want to revive an old PC, and plan to use it mainly for the web, some media consumption, and general office work, then Linux is a completely free option that warrants serious consideration.
In much the same way as Linux offers a great range of possibilities for general computing on the cheap, Google’s ChromeOS is another excellent choice for those whose needs are simple. Converting an old PC into a Chromebook is easy, free, and we show you how to install ChromeOS on an old laptop.