Does security matter to you? Ditch Windows XP for one of these upgrade options

Microsoft officially ends support for Windows XP in April 2014, but there are plenty of upgrade options available. Andy Wolber takes a look at some conventional and alternative OS options.


Windows XP upgrade

If you use Windows XP or Office 2003, after April 2014, you’re living dangerously. XP will run, and you can still work with Office 2003 apps, but Microsoft’s support for these systems ends that month. As a result, systems running XP and Office 2003 will be increasingly vulnerable to attack.

Microsoft will update anti-malware signatures for Windows XP through mid-July 2015. But anti-malware updates may not address system or software level flaws. Google will update and secure Chrome on Windows XP through April 2015. Yet using a secure browser on a potentially insecure operating system seems unwise. People using Windows XP and Office 2003 should upgrade.

Fortunately, upgraders have options. You can choose from at least seven operating systems and five office suites. The path that makes the most sense for you -- or your organization -- depends on many factors, including the number of systems and the reason the systems still run XP (e.g., Custom apps? Or you just haven’t bothered to upgrade yet?).

Apps, costs, and knowledge limit your upgrade options, though. The apps you need (or want) to use must be available for the platform you choose. Some upgrade options require new hardware, some don’t. Alternative apps often do similar tasks on different platforms but may require may require people to adapt (i.e., learn new things).

This week, we'll look at operating system alternatives to Windows XP. Next week, we'll examine office suite alternatives to Office 2003.

Three conventional operating system options

Windows 7: Keep your hardware

For large enterprises and many individuals, Windows 7 may be the most obvious upgrade option, since it retains a similar look and feel to Windows XP. In most cases, Windows 7 will run on the same hardware as systems currently running XP. Download Microsoft’s Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor to assess your system.

Windows 8.1: Works best with a touch screen

Microsoft’s newest operating system provides a touch-friendly, tile-based interface while also offering the ability to run older Windows software. Windows 8 does run on non-touch systems, but I find it best suited for systems with touch screens. So, an upgrade from XP to Windows 8 most likely means buying a new touch-screen device.

Upgrade tip: If you’re upgrading individual systems, I’ve found Laplink’s PCmover to be worth the cost. PCmover saves your apps and data to a file before you upgrade. Then, you do a custom install of Windows 7 to a new folder on your system. After that completes, run PCmover again to unbundle your apps and data. It isn’t perfect, but it saves a lot of time otherwise spent reinstalling apps and copying files.

OS X Mavericks: Change platform, with access to apps

Individuals or small businesses may choose to move to the Mac. Many major software vendors make applications that run on both platforms. Emulators, such as Apple’s Boot Camp and Parallels, make it possible to install and run Windows and Windows apps on the Mac. However, not all peripherals, such as printers and scanners, work with both platforms.

Four alternative operating systems

iOS or Android devices: Robust portable computing

A smartphone or tablet may be all many people need, especially when occasionally paired with an external keyboard. Both platforms offer a rich ecosystem of apps, and both are widely used. For many users, a smartphone or tablet provides “just enough” computing power. Mobility and connectivity offer the opportunity to rethink how work gets done.

Linux: Keep your hardware (but know what you’re doing)

For organizations with sufficient technical expertise (or support), the open source Linux operating system may be a viable alternative. For example, I know of a legal aid society that moved entirely to open source software because the tools both did the job and aligned with the organization’s philosophy. Open source software provides a level of transparency not available with other systems. Security-conscious organizations may find that essential.

Chromebooks / Chrome OS: When the web is enough

If your organization already uses Google Apps, you might replace some of your XP machines with Chromebooks. Unless people need to run non-web apps, Chrome OS and web apps are certainly enough for many users. Chromebooks offer fast boot times and no-hassle access to the web. The low price of most Chromebooks also makes the devices an appealing option for organizations with large numbers of obsolete Windows XP machines.

A unique benefit that Chrome OS offers is that people using Chrome OS can login to the Chrome browser on Windows or Mac systems. Most apps, extensions, passwords, and the browser history can be synced across platforms. Once you move 100% to the web with Chrome OS, you can work effectively in Chrome on any Chrome, Windows, or Mac system.

Check out these additional resources:

Think before you upgrade

The end of life of XP and Office 2003 offers a chance to rethink the tools you use. The simplest upgrade path is to move to a newer version of Windows and Office and call your task complete. But by doing so, you may miss the opportunity to leverage smartphones, tablets, and web apps -- all of which didn’t previously exist as they do today. Finally, I’ll suggest that people who adapt quickly will be more productive than people for whom change is a chore.

Next week, we’ll look at upgrade alternatives for Office 2003.

What do you and your organization plan to do when support for Windows XP finally ends? Share your game plan in the discussion thread below.