A magical Windows XP activation tool has been hiding in plain sight on Reddit for the last year

(Image credit: Microsoft)

If the word "Pentium" or dreamy photos of rolling green hills ignite a nostalgic fire within you, prepare to get pumped: recent developments have ensured that we'll be able to activate Windows XP forever, without needing an internet connection. On Friday, The Register highlighted a new way to successfully activate XP without the use of a keygen—although the "new" bit is the strangest part of this story, because it seems like this method has actually been floating around for months, or even years, without much attention.

For years now the go-to way to activate a fresh Windows XP install relies on a tool called WindowsXPKg, available on Github. It's a keygen that can generate endless product keys for XP. But that product key is only enough to get you an installation ID, which you need to punch into Microsoft's telephone activation service to get a confirmation ID that can be used to finally activate your dang computer. Phew! That's a convoluted process, but it's now also a dead one, because the online service Windows XPKg pointed to for getting an installation ID is now offline. (And it seems inevitable that Microsoft's phone line will one day shut down, too, rendering that entire method permanently kaput).

A blog on Tinyapps.org lays out this whole saga and the "new," much easier solution. It turns out that a tool posted on Reddit nearly a year ago can pull the installation ID from your Windows XP install and generate the matching confirmation ID for you, too. No online service or telephone activation required. You can bypass Microsoft's involvement altogether.

The tool, xp_activate32.exe, is a mere 18kb and has been buried in a short thread on the Windows XP subreddit since last August. I love that the process of easily activating Windows XP in 2023 has come together like a Voltron of arcane internet knowledge—the poster who shared the file via their Google Drive said that they found it via "an old torrent I’d guess?" How long has this thing actually been kicking around out there? 

We may never know, but Github user Neo-Desktop is currently working to disassemble the tool and create an open source version. Assuming that comes to fruition, it should make life easier for anyone who needs to install XP on some old hardware or in a virtual machine to play old games that just don't quite work right on modern Windows.

As great as Windows forward compatibility is, there are plenty of examples of old games that will just work better on ye olde XP, even if you don't care about the authenticity of building an early '00s beige tower or whatever. Take Castlevania the Arcade, an obscure light gun-style arcade game Konami released in 2009. It ran on an XP-based arcade system, and the game's files were recently dumped on the Internet Archive. The community at Video Game Esoterica has gotten it working on modern Windows, but currently without sound effects or music. Want the full package? Just run it on XP.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).