On 8 April, Microsoft will officially cut off support, service, and security updates for Windows XP. It's been a long time coming, but depending on where you stand, it's either overdue or absolute Armageddon. If you're just coming out of the Windows XP world and need help, here are some tips to help you get your bearings.
Whether you just preferred Windows XP, were forced to use it for compatibility reasons, or your company wouldn't upgrade, don't worry, there are still plenty of you left. We've talked about what end-of-support really means, and you have to consider your options now that the end is near.
Upgrading to Windows 7 or Windows 8, Microsoft's newer versions of the same operating system, make the most sense if you're familiar with the Windows world. Alternatively, there's always Linux if you want alternatives, the latter being especially true if you don't want to spend money on a new computer or operating systems.
In this post, we'll walk you through some of the ways you can get comfortable with all of these options, so wherever you go, you'll feel at home.
Check If Your Hardware Can Handle Upgrading
The first thing you should consider is upgrading to Windows 7 or Windows 8. Check Windows 7's system requirements here and Windows 8's system requirements here. If your computer meets those specifications, you can upgrade your current machine to a newer OS and (hopefully) not have to worry about performance problems.
The process of upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 or 8 can be tricky, so instead of trying to upgrade in place, we suggest you back up all of your data and do a clean install. That way you'll get a fresh start, and you can take all of your apps, settings and files with you.
If your computer isn't powerful enough to upgrade, that doesn't mean you're out of luck, or you should just stick with Windows XP. You could roll the dice by securing your Windows XP install as much as possible, or you could try to upgrade anyway. A RAM upgrade or an SSD can go a long way towards helping you over the performance hump. If you're not looking to spend money, now might be a perfect time to try Linux, and we'll talk about your options there a little later.
Whatever you do, make absolutely sure that you back up your computer. If something catastrophic happens, you're on your own. Back up your apps, too -- developers are focused on Windows 7 and 8, so if you can find an old installer, save it. Updates for XP-specific programs will be rare, if at all.
Choose Between Windows 7 And Windows 8
If you plan to stick with Windows, your next decision is the version you want to upgrade to. Windows 7 is well-loved, and you've probably heard a lot of negative stuff about Windows 8 -- but it's really not as bad as everyone claims. If you're worried about the big, bad, tabletified Start Screen in Windows 8, don't be. Think of it as a new Start Menu, one that you can easily get around or disable entirely. Apps like Start8 and Classic Shell bring the old familiar Start Menu back, and boot you right to your desktop, just as Windows XP or Windows 7.
As well, Windows 8 performs better than 7, which is ideal for people with older computers who need to upgrade. On the other hand, Windows 7 is much more like Windows XP, and even though Windows 8 has been out for a while, Windows 7 still has the biggest user and support community. You don't have to do much tweaking to get it working out of the box, and it may feel more familiar to someone upgrading from XP.
We're not about to settle this debate here -- there are merits to both sides, and the only one who can decide is you. Look at screenshots and videos of your favourite apps in each OS. Check out their best features, and make the call that's right for you.
Use Windows' Built-In Utilities To Ease The Transition
Regardless of the version you choose, there are some built-in tools and tweaks you can use to optimise performance and smooth the transition:
- Use Compatibility Mode for older programs: The good news is that your XP applications should run without a problem in Windows 7 and 8, even without updated versions. If you do have problems though, Windows 7 and 8 can run specific apps as if it were an XP machine. Microsoft has instructions on how to do this for Windows 7 here and for Windows 8 here.
- Use XP Mode for apps that just won't work: When Windows 7 launched, it came with "XP Mode", essentially a bundled version of Windows XP and ran in a virtual machine just in case you had apps that just wouldn't work in Windows 7. If you're upgrading to Windows 7, you can still make use of it as a last-resort for stubborn apps. If you're moving to Windows 8, we have a trick that lets you use it in Windows 8, too.
- Bypass the Start Screen and use Classic Shell: We mentioned this above, but apps like Classic Shell in Windows 8 will give you the Windows experience you're used to -- that is, no scary Start Screen, and when you boot up, you go right to your desktop, with your familiar icons and everything.
- Disable Aero and Glass effects to improve performance: Whether you want an XP feel or you're light on CPU or RAM, disabling Aero and Glass -- the effects that give you translucent windows and fancy visual effects in Windows 7 -- can speed things up nicely. This guide over at How-To Geek explains how to do it. (Windows 8 users can skip this since glass only exists in Windows 7.)
- Consider webapps to save money and boost performance: If you're worried about spending money, or about whether your PC can handle a newer version of Microsoft Office, for example, maybe a switch to Office 365 is in order, or it's time to move to Google Docs instead. Switching to webapps that run in your browser (or, in Chrome's case, can even look like desktop apps ) and are lighter on system resources can save you money and take a load off your PC. They're not always a perfect replacement, but don't count them out: the benefits are often well worth the drawbacks.
- Dual boot XP if you have to: If you're hesitant to upgrade mostly because you have tools that just won't work in Windows 7 or 8, you can always dual boot Windows XP with 7 or 8. That way you have the best of both worlds, but we'd suggest only going back to XP when you needed something, as opposed to living in XP and making a marginal effort to get used to your new OS.
Windows 7 and 8 have more in common with XP than you might think. Microsoft fixed a lot of problems with drivers and compatibility in Windows 7's later updates. You'll get the benefit of them on day one. With Windows 8, you definitely get an evolving product, but that doesn't mean it's not good. You just have to be careful how you set it all up.
Just as an example, I recently replaced my father's ageing Windows XP desktop with a new Windows 7 machine. I set it up with attention and care -- making sure he had all the same apps he had before, his settings were preserved, and even that his wallpaper and desktop icons were the same as they were on his Windows XP system. He didn't have a problem with the transition at all. (This is an old trick from my IT support days -- take a screenshot of the pre-upgrade desktop and Start Menu, then set up the new install to look as identical as possible. It makes the switch really easy.) Much of the trouble with a new operating system is the setup process. If you can streamline that and make things as familiar as you can, the upgrade will be a joy, not a pain.
Consider Switching To Linux
If you're fed up with Windows entirely, or you don't feel like spending money on a new Windows licence, now might be a great time to consider switching to Linux. There are a number of distributions that are new-user friendly, and if you're worried that living in the Linux world means you're doomed to memorising terminal commands and dealing with unhelpful communities when troubleshooting, don't be. Finding Linux help is easy these days, and many of the communities around some of the more newbie-friendly distributions are rather welcoming. Best of all, Linux is free, and you can't beat that.
Here are a few distributions we think you might want to check out:
- Ubuntu: Hugely popular, lots of support options, both from users and developers. A great option if you need driver support or want a version of Linux that may never require you use the terminal.
- Linux Mint: Fast and flexible, even on older hardware. Sports a Windows XP-like interface that you'll definitely be familiar with. Also has a great and growing community that's beginner-friendly.
- Elementary OS: Lightweight and fast, not to mention customisable. Completely community-based, and has a real flair for design and appearances. This is one of the prettiest Linux distributions I've used, and if you're looking for something with OS X's design sensibilities, this is it.
- Zorin OS: Has its design roots in Windows XP, and blends speed with very Windows-like sensibilities. It's also a bit of a gateway distro, since the UI is easy to get acclimated to, but as you dig deeper you'll uncover features and tools to broaden your Linux experience.
- Lubuntu: A faster, more lightweight spin on Ubuntu without a lot of the bloat that's made many Ubuntu users unhappy with it. If you have an older, lighter-powered machine, give this a try. Great community support that's welcoming to new users, too.
It's not fair to say these distributions are "built" for newbies, but they're certainly easy to get your bearings in, and with a few extra utilities (like Docky or Numix, for example) they can be customised to look every bit as pretty and easy to use as Windows or Mac OS X could ever hope to be. If your real decision comes down to Ubuntu versus Mint -- the two most popular beginner distributions -- we have a comparison that will help you decide.
We can't ignore the issues of hardware support and available software. Linux has come a long way in a few short years, but for many, it's just not an option. If you're a PC gamer who loves playing the latest releases, Linux may not be an option for you. If you're a graphic designer who lives in Adobe's Creative Suite, it's a non-starter. Depending on the components in your PC or the peripherals you have, you may have trouble finding drivers for your equipment. Plus, many developers just haven't embraced Linux because the market share isn't there to make it worth bringing apps over. If you have peripherals you're worried about, or applications you're worried about replacing, do a little digging to see if there are Linux-friendly drivers or alternatives first. If you're just using your computer for the occasional web browsing and word processor, you'll probably be fine.
If All Else Fails: Upgrade And Make Use Of Your Old Laptop
Up to this point, we've focused on options that help you save money and make use of your current gear. If your old XP computer just can't handle the upgrade, or you don't want to do it yourself, you can always just spend the money and get a new PC. You'll still run into the Windows 7/Windows 8 debate when you go shopping for one -- most computers ship with Windows 8 these days, but some retailers still sell models with Windows 7 (and even if they don't, you have the option to downgrade.) You could buy a new PC and try Linux, or you could switch to a Mac if you really want a change.
If you're still using Windows XP (and yes, many people are), or you know someone who is and isn't sure what to do now that Microsoft is turning out the lights, don't worry, you have options. The end of Windows XP support doesn't have to mean the end of the world. Whichever direction you go, don't forget there are plenty of things you can do with that old hardware other than just recycle it.