As part of its ammunition against piracy, Microsoft has long employed the use of complex product keys that support techs must know when installing software. Although they may be useful tools for Microsoft, product keys create headaches for support techs who must maintain and track product keys for hundreds of pieces of software.

If you’ve misplaced a key but need it to reinstall a piece of software, you’re in luck: Magical Jelly Bean’s Keyfinder will display your original product key for you. And, unlike ViewKeyXP, it will do so for software other than just Windows XP.

It’s not a bad thing
You might be tempted to think there’s something sinister or unethical about using a utility to uncover product keys on your workstations. But as long as you’re using the utility for the right reasons, you have nothing to worry about. The main reason you need it is if you’ve misplaced the original CD for the software you’re running on a machine and need to reinstall it.

Earlier versions of Windows and Office weren’t too picky about the actual CD key you used on a workstation, as long as the key was valid. Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Office XP all tie the CD key to the workstation they’re installed on during product activation. So with these products, you need to know the original key. For the older versions, it’s just good record-keeping practice to know which key goes with what machine.

One product I stumbled across that will help you find an original product key is ViewKeyXP. However, ViewKeyXP only reveals keys on Windows XP. For more information about ViewKeyXP and product keys in general, see the article “Find your Windows XP Product Key with ViewKeyXP.”

How Keyfinder works
Like ViewKeyXP, Keyfinder finds the original product key you used when you installed Windows XP on your system. But Keyfinder goes one step further. Where ViewKeyXP can recover only Windows XP keys, Keyfinder finds keys for other Microsoft products as well. Product keys Keyfinder can find include:

  • Windows 95
  • Windows 98
  • Windows Me
  • Windows NT 4.0
  • Windows 2000
  • Windows XP
  • Windows Server 2003
  • Office 97
  • Office XP

You’ll notice that strangely absent from the list is Office 2000. According to the FAQ on the author’s Web site, he hasn’t yet been able to figure out how Microsoft encrypts the product key for Office 2000. However, as soon as he can figure it out, he plans to update Keyfinder to display those keys as well.

Another key difference from ViewKeyXP is that Keyfinder comes from a single source. You can download the file directly from the Magical Jelly Bean Web site, instead of having to search for the file on the Internet. This greatly reduces the chances that you’ll accidentally pick up a virus from the file.

As of the time of this article, the latest version of Keyfinder was 1.41, which you can obtain by downloading from Magical Jelly Bean. The .zip file is small, only 252 KB, so it won’t take that long to download.

Using Keyfinder
Like ViewKeyXP, there are no setup wizards to deal with when using Keyfinder. Just extract Keyfinder.exe from the .zip file and you’re ready to go. Execute the program, and it will quickly check your workstation to see what version of Windows you’re running and whether you’re running a supported version of Office. It will display your Windows version and original CD key in the CD Key field as shown in Figure A. I’ve blurred out the actual CD keys for my test machines.

Figure A
Keyfinder will display your operating system and original CD key.

As you can see in the figure, Keyfinder is only displaying information about Windows, not Office. That’s because my Windows 2000 test machine is running Office 2000. If you have a supported version of Office, you can click the Microsoft Office tab that will appear to display the CD key for Office.

Where did I put my keys?
Don’t worry about having a piece of paper handy to scribble down the keys Keyfinder discovers. If you click File, you can copy the key to the clipboard and paste it into another application, print it out by clicking Print, or saving it to a text file by clicking Save. Then you can use the information to reinstall the software on your workstation or to file away as part of your hardware/software inventory.