Unless you’ve been living a Luddite existence in a cabin off the grid in the Rockies somewhere, you’ve probably heard by now that Microsoft will officially stop supporting Windows XP in just a few weeks on April 8. The question that Windows XP users need to answer is how they intend to handle the situation — particularly if they’re part of the crowd that isn’t fond of the new Windows 8 / 8.1 OS.
At face value, the choice seems binary — either switch to Windows 8 or keep using Windows XP. In fact, there are a few other alternatives that lie between those two extremes. The best way to determine the best solution for you is to address the prevailing issues and figure out which option addresses most or all of them for you.
Let’s take the issues most often cited by Windows XP loyalists and/or Windows 8 bashers one at a time.
I want my old software to work
The most obvious answer for this one is to just continue using Windows XP. Frankly, that's just not a path I recommend, though.
If you have software that runs in Windows XP, your best bet is going to be another version of Windows. Windows 7 and Windows 8 both have features designed to enable legacy software to run in a compatibility mode or virtual machine (VM) that emulates a Windows XP environment.
If that doesn’t work for some reason, my first stop would be to talk with the software developer about modernizing the program to work with an operating system from this decade. Another option would be to use a newer version of Windows, and set up a Windows XP VM that you use specifically for the applications that you can’t make work in a different version of Windows.
Windows XP could be set up as a VM in a different version of Windows, or in Mac OS X, or Linux. So, if you choose that route, you actually have a number of options. Keep in mind, though, that you need to have a legally licensed copy of the OS to run it in a VM, and you'll probably need the OS on a disc in order to install it. Finally, remember that an OS in a VM is still an OS — it's still vulnerable to attack and will expose you to all of the same issues you’d have if you just kept running Windows XP.
I want to use my existing hardware
Newer operating systems typically require more system resources. There's a good chance that your existing Windows XP hardware meets the minimum system requirements for Windows 7 or Windows 8, but it won’t be optimal and probably lacks key technologies — like TPM or UEFI — that Windows 8 uses.
The best option for making use of your existing hardware is probably to install some version of Linux. Distributions of Linux generally require a fraction of the processor, memory, hard drive space, or other resources that Windows needs and will zip along just fine on your old XP hardware. Linux can seem overwhelming to average users, but some variants — like Ubuntu Linux — are very user-friendly and use a number of Windows-esque conventions (depending on the desktop environment you choose), so the learning curve is shorter.
I don’t want to learn a whole new interface
Well, that rules out Mac OS X and Linux for sure. It also doesn’t bode well for Windows 8.
The best option if you want to upgrade but want an OS that most closely matches what you’re used to in Windows XP is to upgrade to Windows 7.
If you’re going to upgrade to a new version of Windows, though, just go to Windows 8. Yes, it has a dramatically different look and feel with the Modern (Metro) UI and the Windows 8 Start screen. However, it can easily be configured to boot straight to the desktop, and all of your traditional Windows software runs in the desktop anyway. As long as you’re in the desktop on Windows 8, there's no difference from Windows 7 in either form or function, but you get a number of performance, operational, and security improvements that don’t exist in Windows 7.
You can still buy Windows 7 computers from retailers like Best Buy, and there are copies of Windows 7 available on Amazon. Microsoft has sweetened the pot for customers who are upgrading from Windows XP by offering a $100 gift card for purchases from MicrosoftStore.com of select Windows 8.1 systems that cost $599 or more.
I want something simple that just works
“It just works” is an operational principle of Apple. If you want to drop Windows XP and you don’t want to move to Windows 7 or Windows 8, Mac OS X is the way to go.
Mac OS X is a very nice operating system, and it has a number of cool and unique features. It's simple almost to a fault. There are many things about Mac OS X that are quite intuitive if you don’t know any other way but seem counter-intuitive to someone who has used Windows for years. When I first started using Mac OS X, I was frustrated on many occasions because I was trying to do things the “Windows way.” Once you learn your way around, though, Mac OS X is a powerful and capable OS.
Switching to Mac OS X will require purchasing new hardware. Although Mac laptops and PCs run on the same Intel-based hardware as most Windows machines, Mac OS X can only be installed and run on authentic, genuine Apple hardware. The change in hardware may also require some of your peripherals to be changed as well, but most keyboards, mice, webcams, and other devices produced in the past few years will work with either Windows or Mac OS X.
I don’t want to be forced to upgrade every few years
You’re just out of luck.
To be fair, nobody is forcing anybody to do anything. The reality, though, is that Microsoft’s pace for launching new operating systems is relatively lethargic compared to its rivals. Apple has launched three new major versions of Mac OS X just since Microsoft introduced Windows 7, and it already stopped supporting the version that came out in 2009. It seems like Ubuntu cranks out a new major version every six months or so, and it officially stopped supporting the version that came out at the same time as Windows 7 after only two years.
Microsoft is going to stop supporting Windows XP, but it has provided support for the OS for 13 years. It still supports Windows Vista and will provide extended support for Windows 7 through 2020 — 11 years after its initial release. You aren’t being “forced” to upgrade at all, but if you’re looking for the OS that will provide you support for the longest period of time without requiring you to upgrade, you should definitely stick with Windows.
I don’t want to spend any money
This issue isn’t all that different from wanting to continue using your existing hardware, but the options are more limited. Even if your hardware is capable of running Windows 7 or Windows 8 with adequate performance, upgrading to one of those operating systems requires money.
If you don’t want to have to spend any money on hardware or software, install Linux. It’s an open source operating system and there are a wide variety of variants to choose from — the vast majority of which can be downloaded for free. It’s possible to run some Windows software from within Linux using software like WINE, but you may need to replace some applications with Linux-compatible equivalents. The good news is that most of the software you use with Linux is also open source and freely available, so it’s virtually guaranteed you can find something that will work for you without spending a dime.
Again, you’re welcome to just keep using Windows XP, but you do so at your own risk, and Microsoft won’t be there to throw you a rope when you start drowning in exploits. Honestly, I recommend moving to Windows 8 and investing the 15 minutes it takes to get used to the new conventions. However, if that’s just not your thing, at least now you know what the options are.
What do you plan to do when support for Windows XP officially expires? Let us know in the discussion thread below.
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Tony Bradley is a principal analyst with Bradley Strategy Group. He is a respected authority on technology, and information security. He writes regularly for Forbes, and PCWorld, and contributes to a wide variety of online and print media outlets. He has authored or co-authored a number of books, including Unified Communications for Dummies, Essential Computer Security, and PCI Compliance.