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Vista's Windows kill switch: What to do if RFM kicks in

The anti-piracy features in Windows Vista, many of which are extensions of technologies introduced in Windows XP, have stirred up some controversy. Perhaps the most infamous of these is Reduced Functionality Mode (RFM), where features of Vista are disabled if there appears to be a violation of the licensing agreement.

Some people have called RFM a Windows kill switch. But rather than take other people's word for it, I sat down with a gold-code copy of Vista and examined RFM closely. I saw that RFM only gets triggered if one of three things happens:

  1. You've been running Vista for more than 30 days without activating it. When you first install Vista you're given a 30-day grace period to activate. You can even install without a license key and run Vista completely unrestricted in the meantime, but at the end of the grace period, RFM kicks in.
  2. You've modified the computer Vista is running on broadly enough that it can no longer determine that it is running on the same PC. (This is similar to the hardware thresholds used in XP.) If you make changes this drastic, you have a three-day grace period to re-activate (30 days for volume-licensed editions of Vista).
  3. Vista cannot determine that the copy of Windows you're running is genuine (i.e., a Windows Genuine Advantage violation). A big complaint about WGA was the fragility of its detection system; if there was a problem with

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  1. WGA, you were not given any warning. Again, Vista gives you a three-day warning period if WGA fails.

What can you do if RFM kicks in? These are your options:

  • Run a Web browser or an email client. Apparently, it's also possible to run an instant-messenger program.
  • Run scripts remotely on the computer via Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI).
  • Activate Vista with a new or existing product key.
  • Remain logged on if you've already been logged on. If you log off and back on again, you are only able to stay logged on for one hour at a time.
  • Boot to safe mode. This will allow you to run most conventional programs and do troubleshooting. It can also be run with network support if needed.

Note: If RFM kicks in, your data and programs will not be affected, and you'll still be able to boot to another operating system and access everything on the computer remotely if you need to.

By the way, one of the most common reasons for WGA and Product Activation failures is that spyware or a virus has prevented the system from validating. You can use the Microsoft Genuine Advantage Diagnostic Site with Vista to first determine if such a problem exists, then to take steps to correct it. If the computer warns you about Windows not being genuine, I recommend you take advantage of the grace period to get a head start on fixing the problem.

Critical note: During the Vista install process, when you're prompted to provide a license key, you'll get an option that reads "Automatically activate Windows when I'm online." If you check this box, regardless of whether you provide a license key, Vista will require activation within three days, not 30. So if you want to activate at your leisure during the 30-day grace period, be sure to clear this box when installing.

About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter, which is devoted to hints, tips, tricks, news and goodies for Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP users and administrators. He has more than 10 years of Windows experience under his belt, and contributes regularly to SearchWinComputing.com and SearchSQLServer.com.

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