Windows XP is dying. On April 8, Microsoft will stop supporting the ancient operating system that was released in 2001 — and at one point was used by 400 million people.
Bill Gates introducing Windows XP in October, 2001. Photo: Getty Images.
You might think that an operating system that was actually engineered in the late 90s would be fully obsolete and unused by now. After all, since XP came out, Microsoft has released several major replacement versions: Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 (recently upgraded to Windows 8.1).
But there’s something about Windows XP. It’s basic, stable, fast enough, and good enough for a lot of people. It’s still running on more than 10 percent of the world’s computers, and it’s huge in China.
Still, it’s time. It’s hard to keep an operating system this old up to snuff in today’s online environment. XP works, but it’s not built to the same security level as modern operating systems. Microsoft doesn’t want to keep writing new security upgrades for it, so on April 8, it’s stopping. No more security updates. No more support. Your XP computer will still work, but Microsoft won’t help you anymore. Microsoft is pretty harsh about it: “XP cannot be considered safe to use after support ends.”
Microsoft urges you to upgrade. There’s even a site that tells you when your XP world will end: AmIRunningXP.com. Microsoft also has more info on what "end of support" means. To be fair, moving off XP would be a smart thing to do. Newer operating systems are easier to use (at least most of them), they run the cool new apps, and they’re definitely safer. But how do you move from an old computer that’s running XP into the modern era? I’ve heard a lot of advice on how to make the transition. Not all of it good. Here are your options. Bad ideas first:
The Windows XP desktop you may know and love.
Bad idea #1: Just don’t worry about it
It’s not like Windows XP computers will magically stop working on April 9. So don’t worry about it; just keep on using it.
Why is this a bad idea? The problem with an old operating system is that it’s not up to speed with modern attacks. Operating systems need to be patched (updated) frequently to keep them safe from data thieves, scammers, viruses, and the like. After April 8, there will be no more updates coming.
But if you plan to keep going with XP for a while, at least make sure you’re on the last, ultimate version of it, called Service Pack 3. After April 8, you won’t be able to upgrade. Windows’ own update utility should manage this for you. Make sure it’s done so.
Microsoft says it will continue to provide updates to its “anti-malware signatures and engine for Windows XP users through July 14, 2015,” so you can continue to use the company’s antivirus app, Microsoft Security Essentials. That is, assuming you already have MSE. After April 8, it won’t be available for download at all. You could also get a possibly better antivirus tool from another vendor. PC Pro recommends Avast 2014. It’s free, and they say it’s better than Microsoft’s own Security Essentials.
But don’t get comfortable. According to Microsoft, even up-to-date security software can’t save you if the operating system itself isn’t secure. And Windows XP just isn’t. Microsoft says, “Our research shows that the effectiveness of anti-malware solutions on out-of-support operating systems is limited. Running a well-protected solution starts with using modern software and hardware designed to help protect against today’s threat landscape.”
So you can keep using XP, but not without risk. You probably don’t want it connected to the Internet, and even plugging a USB drive into it could be unsafe.
Bad idea #2: Upgrade to Windows 8, like Microsoft wants you to
Why not get the latest version of Windows? It’s so shiny!
Windows 8.1’s default interface. Get ready to re-learn Windows.
There are two big reasons why this is a bad idea. The first: It probably won’t work. Your old Win XP machine likely does not have the horsepower, the hard disk space, or the hardware to run Windows 8.
Second: You’ll hate it. Windows 8 (including 8.1) has two separate interfaces. There’s a Windows desktop-like one in there, which you’ll probably find comfortable, but you have to go through the touchscreen-centric primary interface to get to it. That’s fine if you have a tablet. But your XP machine is no tablet.
You can mostly avoid that tile-based, touchscreen interface, but not completely. It pops up from time to time, usually when you’re in a hurry and stressed out, and it’s frustrating when it happens.
You can also bite the bullet and get a new Windows 8 computer. They’re not expensive at all. They’re just alien.
If you do start over on a Windows 8 machine, Microsoft has tools to make moving your data from XP to Windows 8 fairly straightforward.
Bad idea #3: Move to Linux
The geek operating system (sorry, geeks) called Linux is stable, fast, cheap, and free, and will run on your old XP machine better than Windows 8 will. The nerds will tell you it’ll do everything that XP will do. They’re right.
The Ubuntu version of Linux. It’ll do everything you want, but you might have to learn a few new concepts.
But here’s why it’s a bad idea: It really is a platform for nerds. Few people you know — unless you know a lot of programmers — will be able to help you out. And your Windows software won’t work. If you have apps you like, you’ll have to find Linux equivalents for them. You’re better off moving to a consumer-friendly operating system.
Bad idea #4: Get a Chromebook
We love the oddball new Chromebooks, Google’s web-centric laptops. They’re cheap, they work great with online apps, and they’re easy to share.
Why is this a bad idea, then? Because Chromebooks rely on a connection to the Internet. Some functions and apps work when disconnected, but most don’t. And Chromebooks don’t run regular Windows programs (Photoshop, Quicken, iTunes, and so on). Chromebooks are great for specific purposes and people (they are great for kids at home or school, for example), but they’re not quite ready to replace Macs or Windows PCs for everybody.
The HP Chromebook 11. A solid laptop.
Don’t like these bad ideas? Then try one of these other directions:
Better idea #1: Upgrade to Windows 7
The version of Windows that predates Windows 8 is really good. It’s stable and conceptually similar enough to Windows XP that a transition will not be difficult.
It’s not a perfect solution, though. Your machine may not have the juice to run Windows 7, either, as it actually takes a slightly more powerful computer to run Windows 7 well than Windows 8. But you can, for the time being still buy Windows 7 (even though it’s not clear if Microsoft is still manufacturing Win 7 disks), and some hardware vendors still sell computers with Windows 7 installed on them.
Windows 7. Comfy.
Microsoft really wants you on Windows 8, obviously. A Microsoft spokesperson took pains to remind me that Windows 8 is more secure, faster, and uses less energy than Windows 7.
But the easiest new version of Windows to learn after Windows XP is Windows 7, so if you’re just using Windows to run a particular app, it’s a very good option.
Better idea #2: Get a Mac
Bizarrely, it’s easier to move from Windows XP to the Macintosh operating system, OS X, than to Windows 8.1. There are maddening small differences, but conceptually OS X is similar enough to Windows XP (and every other version of Windows other than Windows 8). It doesn’t take people very long to adapt. Most (though not all) good apps are available in Mac versions, too, and your data files should transfer over just fine.
The MacBook Air
It’s an expensive move, though. The cheapest new Mac costs $600 (the entry-level Mac Mini; you can use the screen, mouse, and keyboard from your old Windows computer). Laptops start at $1000 and desktops at $1,300. Complete Windows machines today start in the $300 range, or very nicely equipped at about $600. If you can afford it, though, and you’re not married to specific Windows XP software, Macs are a treat to use.
You’re not alone
Why are people still using Windows XP? I asked my Facebook followers and got good answers from people who are. Some people keep old machines for specific purposes, like running XP-only software and the like. Some just take the enlightened opinion that if they have a computer that works for what they want, there’s no reason to spend money and time on an upgrade.
Just because a manufacturer deems one of its products obsolete, it doesn’t mean everyone who uses such a product has to stop using it immediately. However, over time, an old product in the modern world will develop problems: It will be less safe, or there won’t be people to fix it, or some other product it relies on will fail, and replacements won’t be available any longer. Yes, I’m talking about Windows XP, but the same is true if you’re still driving a 1976 AMC Pacer.
When you get into this part of the cycle, you might be forced to move on. But you have a lot of options when you decide to do so — and they might not be the options that the manufacturer recommends.
Correction: This story originally omitted the Mac Mini in the section describing Mac options.
Rafe Needleman can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @rafe.