I never thought I’d hear the phrase “Windows 7″ ever again, but a Lifehacker reader recently reminded me that, yes, some people are still using Microsoft’s end-of-life operating system. It’s not that they wouldn’t want to upgrade, I assume, but some people just can’t; they probably tried, were met with an error message, and gave up.
Is clinging to Windows 7 going to be a security problem going forward, though? Lifehacker reader Suzann asks:
I have an old computer running windows 7 and can’t be upgraded. I only it for a few things like printing my bank statements, emails, word documents, storing photos, stuff like that.
I was worried that I don’t have the safest WPS3 and unable to get it. I currently have WPS2 psk or something like that. Am I at risk? Do I need to buy a new computer?
I’d probably move off Windows 7 sooner than later
Here’s the deal: regular people using Windows 7 aren’t getting any more updates for the operating system, save for incredibly critical and rare issues that Microsoft identifies — and I doubt those updates will land via Windows Update. You’d have to hear about them, visit some website Microsoft hosts, and download and install the update yourself. Most people won’t do this, nor would I expect it to be something that happens with any regularity in the coming years.
What does this mean? Your PC is a ticking time bomb, of sorts. There’s certainly a chance that some future vulnerability will be found and exploited by those looking to take advantage of an operating system that won’t ever be able to stop them; there’s also a chance that your system will completely fly under the radar and you’ll be fine to continue your basic activities.
Is it a risk you should take? I don’t think so. But I’m also not going to fault you for continuing on, because not everyone has the time, budget, or interest in buying a brand-new computer to keep doing basic tasks that worked just find on their older, paid-for machine.
Before I get to the real advice, though, here’s one quick and easy answer: Don’t worry about “WPS3″ — really, WPA3, which is a security standard for wireless networking. The WPA2 you’re using to encrypt your wireless network is more than sufficient, I’d argue, as long as you have a reasonably strong password. I doubt anyone is sitting outside your house or with a laptop to your shared apartment wall, trying to brute-force their way into your wireless network. Just make sure you’re using WPA2-AES, not WPA2-TKIP or WPA2-TKIP+AES, for the best possible wireless speeds.
But back to Windows 7. I have another hesitation with suggesting you should continue using the operating system, which is that, eventually, your browser will stop receiving security updates. That just adds one more unpleasant vector that attackers can use to mess up your digital life. You might have a year; you might have two years — but one day, your web browser’s manufacturer will stop updating it for Windows 7 machines. That is definitely the time I’d recommend upgrading to Windows 10 — or pulling out some other crafty trick.
Let’s talk about those crafty tricks. Have you tried upgrading Windows 7 to Windows 10 recently? I would give that one last shot before you throw in the towel, using the simple “use a USB key for the installation media” technique I’ve previously described. It’s possible that you’ll have better luck now.
If not, I would go a second route: Back up all of the important stuff on your system, even if that means buying an external drive to do it — something you should already have on-hand and be using to regularly back up your data. Don’t create a full image of the drive, as that’ll cause some havoc later, but copy all your important files somewhere else, either using good ol’ Windows Explorer or any number of free backup tools.
Once you’ve done that, use that very same installation media (your flash drive) to attempt a clean install of Windows 10. That means you’ll be wiping your drive of all its data during the installation process and installing Windows 10 on a fresh digital canvas.
If that works, great. You might be able to activate it for free if you use your old Windows 7 key, too. If it doesn’t work, though, don’t worry.
Since you don’t do very much on your system, you could also explore installing Linux — yes, Linux — which would give you security updates and an experience that’s pretty similar to your existing desktop. It’s a different operating system entirely, which means some things will be a little weird (and some esoteric apps might not work). However, it would suit you for all the basic tasks you described.
I recommend using Linux Mint, which is both easy to install and easy on the eyes, or something like Ubuntu Mate. You’ll need to use your laptop (or borrow a friend’s) to make the USB key for this if you’ve already wiped your Windows 7 system. You’d install Linux Mint basically the same way you attempted to install Windows 10, and once it’s up and running, you should be able to pull up your external drive (or favourite cloud service, or whatever) and restore your data.
Again, this would take a little getting used to — it’s not Windows, after all — but it would be a much more secure prospect than sticking with Windows 7 for the next few years. If this all sounds like way too much work, you could always pick up a new budget Windows laptop or cheaper Windows desktop. It’s not an approach I love, given that your old PC should be good enough to do what you do, but it’s an option.
No matter what, make sure you’ve backed up your data — ideally in multiple places — before you start messing with your Windows 7 PC. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t lose the best parts of your existing setup because you were mucking around. In fact, you might want to have a Windows 7 installation disc (or flash drive) on standby in case you throw your hands up and want to go back to the way things used to be.
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