Life After XP

Life After XP

Come April 8th, Windows XP will no longer be supported or updated by Microsoft. Windows is dead—long live Windows! Seriously though, what are so many of us going to do? We avoided Windows Vista because, well, it stank, and Windows 7 just seemed unnecessary when XP was still officially supported and time-tested. Now at the end of its life, XP leaves us with a hole in our hearts as we consider where to go next.

Why has XP stuck around for so long?

People love XP. According to Ars Technica, XP still commands 29% of the worldwide computer operating system market. That's a big number!  It’s hardly a surprise. Up until maybe the last two years XP was still getting the job done. Most programs still ran on it, it was getting frequent updates, and, most importantly, it just worked. Who wants to change away from that?


(used with permission)

Times are changing though. Despite a steady flow of updates from Microsoft and whatever Internet security software we might install, XP is nonetheless the least secure of Microsoft’s operating systems still in widespread use. It’s been around for so long that cybercriminals are all too aware of its many security flaws. These weaknesses are easy for them to exploit simply because the majority of users still operating with XP are probably not updating their computers anyway or have lax Internet security software, if any.  

XP also lacks support for modern computer hardware. Pretty much every laptop and desktop computer these days is powered by a 64-bit Intel or AMD processor. These CPUs are far more powerful, can address more RAM, and are more energy efficient than the 32-bit processors that powered most home PCs prior to 2006 when Intel’s Core 2 processors popularized 64-bit computing. There was a 64-bit home version of Windows XP, but it almost never came pre-installed. Those souls brave enough to seek out a copy were presented with a buggy mess of an operating system, so it never caught on.  

The lack of 64-bit support in Windows XP, even after the release of Intel’s 64-bit home processors, wasn’t a huge deal for several years. 32-bit software usually runs with no problems on 64-bit processors. When Windows Vista was released in January 2007, 64-bit processor adoption rates were increasing dramatically. However, thanks to Windows XP’s entrenchment and its lack of support for 64-bit CPUs, most OEMs kitted their hardware with 32-bit versions of Vista. It’s only in the last two years or so that 64-bit software has started to become the norm for home computers, and that software simply will not run on the now 13-year-old Windows XP. It’s been a long time coming, but the day of 32-bit software is almost up.  

We also have to consider the rise of mobile devices, almost all of which run on chips based on ARM processor architecture. The only version of Windows that will run on ARM-based processors is Windows 8’s little brother, Windows RT. RT is definitely the least popular version of Windows currently paired with any new devices, but it’s still just one more nail in XP’s coffin, given how wildly popular mobile devices have become.  

And, of course, enterprise users such as companies and government agencies are always loathe to migrate to a new operating system. The expense of the new software, the man-hours required to design and distribute software builds based on a new operating system to hundreds or thousands of computers, the headache of trying to run legacy software that is incompatible with a new OS, and let's not forget the huge amount of training required to bring a large group of employees up-to-date with the features and flaws of the new OS all come together to form the perfect storm of an IT worker's worst nightmare. Like anybody wants to deal with that while XP is still good enough.  

So what now?

As I briefly outlined in an earlier post regarding obsolete technology, XP users have a number of options, but they’re probably not going to like most of them.  

  1. Stick with XP.
    No one’s forcing you to switch (yet), but if you use the Internet a lot, particularly with an always-on broadband connection, you are dangerously susceptible to all sorts of malware. You’ll also notice that fewer and fewer new or updated programs, such as your Web browser, will run on your computer. Office 2013 is a pretty slick productivity suite, but if you want it, you’ll need to upgrade to Windows 7 or 8.1, and you can expect that trend to continue with a growing number of programs. Oh, and if you have downloaded the latest XP updates on your home computer, you're probably going to start getting pop-up messages stating XP is no longer supported.  So, that'll be fun for you. 


     
  2. Buy a new computer with Windows 7 pre-installed.
    You absolutely will not find such a computer from any brick and mortar store.  If you want Windows 7, arguably the best OS Microsoft has ever released, you'll need to go online. Direct distributors such as Dell, HP, Toshiba, and Lenovo will sell you Windows 7 computers from their Web sites. Even electronics retailers such as Amazon.com and Newegg.com have a wide selection of Windows 7 computers. If you want a Windows 7 computer, you need to do it before October of this year—Microsoft has stated that they will probably cease sales of Windows 7 to OEMs at the end of that month. There is the very small chance that they will extend this, but I wouldn't take chances. If you want Windows 7, act fast!  

  3. Buy the Windows 8.1 upgrade software. 
    A new copy of Windows 8.1 will run you $119 if purchased directly from Microsoft. There is no direct upgrade route from XP to Windows 8.1. When you embark on this odyssey, you’ll be wiping your hard drive and starting from scratch with Windows 8.1.  As such, prior to switching to Windows 8.1, make the following preparations:
     
    • First, make sure that your computer has the necessary hardware specifications to run 8.1. Check out the requirements at http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-8/system-requirements. You can also download the upgrade assistant from http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-8/upgrade-assistant-download-online-faq, and it will do the checking for you.  
       
    • Back up all your personal files: pictures; videos; text documents; music—all of it—to an external hard drive, flash drive, DVDs, or whatever your preferred storage medium happens to be. Remember, backing up means having the files in a location other than your computer because when Windows 8.1 installs itself, it's going to erase anything you leave behind!
    • Make sure you’ve got all the discs or download locations for all of your purchased software, as well as the necessary activation keys and account information. Not sure what your activation keys are for a particular program?  Download the free version of KeyFinder —It will recover almost all activation keys except those for Adobe CS programs. You’ll have to pay for the version that recovers those keys.
    • Hang on to your britches!
       
  4. Buy a new computer with Windows 8.1 already installed.  
    If you're looking to buy a new computer from a brick-and-mortar store, all you're going to find are Windows 8.1 machines. There are a couple of things to consider here:
     
    • Windows 8.1 is a radical departure from WIndows XP or even Windows 7. It's going to take some time to learn. Fortunately we've got a growing collection of books at the library to help. The Goodwill Community Foundation also has a great site, GCFLearnfree.org with tutorials for learning Windows 8 and many other computer programs and technologies. And, if you're a glutton for punishment and bring your own laptop, you could always schedule a free training-on-demand session with me here at the Headquarters Library.  
       
    • Windows 8.1 is optimized for computers with touchscreens. A mouse and keyboard will work just fine, but good chunks of the interface were designed with the index finger in mind. It'll cost you a little extra, but you'll get extended functionality out of a touchscreen.  
       
    • Do find you absolutely hate how Windows 8.1 looks and works? Fear not!  There are many guides out there for you to Google—a guide like this one—on how to make Windows 8.1 look, feel, and act like Windows 7 without giving up the under-the-hood improvements of the newer OS.
    • Look for the best you can get!  New laptop models come out roughly every three to six months, so you'll want to stay in the know about what to buy.  Check out reviews on sites like Cnet.com and PCMag.com.
       
  5. Forget Windows and install Linux.
    Back when I was in college, desktop versions of Linux were still very much in their infancy. They looked the part, but their performance and stability weren’t ready for prime time. Every new year was supposed to the "year of desktop Linux." Fast-forward ten years and things have definitely changed. There is now a considerable selection of desktop Linux distributions that put Windows XP—or really any version of Windows—to shame.

    Though you won’t be able to run your favorite Windows-only software and games (at least not without some advanced know-how or a copy of the program Crossover which makes running most Windows programs in Linux easy), there are free open source alternatives to just about everything you can think of, all of them available for download from within a centralized “app store” that comes with most versions of Linux these days.  

    As with upgrading to Windows 8.1, you should make a few preparations:
     
    • Back up all your personal files, just as with upgrading to Windows 8.1. Most of them should work just fine in Linux.  
       
    • There are many versions of Linux, all of them free. The most popular version that enjoys the most support is Ubuntu, but I think Linux Mint is easier Linux neophytes. Linux Mint has a few different variants, each running a different graphical desktop environment, but my favorite is the version with the Cinnamon desktop. The operating system downloads as a DVD image or .iso file that will need to be burned to an actual DVD. You can also buy a ready-made DVD from https://www.osdisc.com/products/linux/linuxmint/linux-mint-16-cinnamon-install-live-dvd-pc.html for just a few dollars if you’re not sure how to burn image files.  


       
    • Once you’ve got your DVD ready to go, insert it into your computer’s disc drive, restart the computer, and it should boot from the DVD rather than from the hard drive. If this is not the case, you’ll need to go into your computer’s BIOS settings from the boot screen and instruct the computer to attempt to boot from the disc drive before the hard drive. Not sure how to approach this?  Follow these directions from about.com
       
    • After the computer takes a few seconds to read the DVD, you will be presented with a menu of options. The first option to concern yourself with is to run a “live” session from the DVD. Basically, this means that no changes are made to your computer, Windows remains installed and accessible, but you’ll be able to sample Linux directly from the DVD without installing anything permanently. Give this a try. Note: it will be a little slow since it’s running from the DVD. Test out all the operations. And, if you like it . . .
       
    • Reboot from the DVD, and this time choose the option to install and follow the prompts on the screen. Remember, this will erase everything already on your computer’s hard drive, so be sure you’ve backed up all your personal files ahead of time.
       
    • Check out the Official User Guide for more information on how to install and then successfully use Linux Mint. The switch from Windows XP to Linux Mint is nowhere near as jarring as the switch to Windows 8.1 would be, but there is still plenty to learn, so read up!
       
  6. Switch to a tablet. 
    This isn’t so farfetched as it used to be. If you’re a light computer user who only needs basic functionality like Web access, email, word processing, audio and video playback, and maybe a game or two, then tablets aren’t a bad option. Pair them with a bluetooth keyboard, and you’ve got a decent laptop alternative with a much longer battery life.  Here’s what to consider:
     
    • The Apple iPad is by far the most popular tablet computer out there, thanks to its sleek design and bevy of innovative apps. It’s also the least customizable and least like a PC. With no mouse support, no expandable storage options, and no centralized file storage that multiple apps can access without difficulty, it’s probably the least likely to suit your needs as a true PC replacement option.  
       
    • Windows RT tablets run a slimmed-down version of Windows 8.1. They lack the classic desktop and support for programs built for Intel and AMD desktop CPUs, but they are cheaper than tablets running a full version of Windows 8.1. Windows RT doesn’t have a huge selection of apps, but it does have Microsoft Office which is a big selling feature for many productivity users.  
       
    • Modern Android tablets running version 4.1-4.3 Jelly Bean or 4.4 KitKat are without a doubt the most customizable tablets, with a selection of apps that now rivals the iPad’s, and support for a mouse, bluetooth and USB keyboards, and even game controllers. Depending on the tablet, this functionality may be supported out-of-the-box, or it may require a peripheral or two; read more on that here.  Arguably the most popular “pure” Android tablet out there is the Google Nexus 7, but given its small and slim screen, I can’t recommend it for productivity. Instead, look at the Samsung Galaxy series, the Asus Transformer series, the Lenovo Yoga series, and the Sony Xperia series of Android tablets.

      As a side note, even though it is technically an Android tablet, stay away from the Amazon Kindle Fire for productivity purposes. The Kindle Fire is a media consumption device first and foremost, and it won’t satisfy your productivity needs at all.  

So, there you have it. There is life after Windows XP! It might be a bumpy ride for some, but embrace the change. You might find that you end up liking the results better than XP, however much you doubt that right now.