Windows XP Game Over: 9 Upgrade Options - InformationWeek

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3/25/2014
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Michael Endler
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Windows XP Game Over: 9 Upgrade Options

Some of you don't want to say goodbye to Windows XP any more than you wanted to retire the Atari. But support ends on April 8: We break down your best upgrade options.
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Image: cooling999, deviantart.com
Image: cooling999, deviantart.com

You've held out a long time, brave Windows XP user. Maybe you joined the XP game in 2007, when you steered clear of Windows Vista. Or maybe you've been using XP since the operating system debuted all the way back in 2001, when many of today's youngest Microsoft employees weren't even in high school.

Security experts have chided your hesitancy to upgrade. Microsoft, which is now tempting XP users with $100 off Windows 8.1 devices, has been practically begging you to move along. Your PC takes 10 minutes to boot up. It relies on components that are outclassed by what's inside your average smartphone, let alone the latest PCs. But you've remained unmoved by these bells and whistles. Let's give credit where it's due: In an age when the newest, flashiest devices have become status symbols, your resistance to new tech is impressive.

[How will Windows XP's end-of-service deadline affect government IT? Read Windows XP: Feds Brace for End of Support.]

Yes, you might be getting by with XP because you're also using a smartphone or tablet. Or you might still be using your antiquated PC for almost all your computing needs, just as you have for years. Maybe you've replaced a hard drive here or there to keep everything up and running. But as long as your computer still boots, you've been determined to squeeze every drop of life out of it, the alleged benefits of newer, shinier machines be damned. For today's wired youths, you are the technology equivalent of walking uphill both ways in the snow, and there is some virtue in that.

But nothing lasts forever. Whether you've delayed upgrade for reasons of principled austerity or financial necessity, your day of reckoning is almost here. On April 8, Windows XP will officially become an unsupported operating system. Unless you're a big company willing to shell out millions for extended support, Microsoft will no longer update your XP machines or protect them from new cyberthreats. Right or wrong, like it or not, if you're running XP, it's time to make a decision.

Based on the reader emails we've received in recent weeks, a lot of people are approaching this decision with uncertainty: "Do I really need to upgrade? And if so, to what?"

The answers are fairly simple. No, you don't have to upgrade, but if you have to ask, you probably should. If you want the option that's closest to Windows XP, Windows 7 is probably the best bet. If you use your XP machine primarily for email and the Internet, literally any modern replacement device, tablets included, will be adequate. If you also do moderately heavy word processing, anything with a keyboard will suffice, although smaller devices might be more cramped than you're used to.

Beyond these basic guidelines, let your individual needs, sensibilities, and budget guide you. We've broken down the pros and cons of various upgrade options. Which one will you choose? Have you already made a decision? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments section below.  

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
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3/25/2014 | 12:03:14 PM
XP to Linux
Sometime InformationWeek contributor Ellis Booker has built a side business around helping consumers and businesses make the jump to Linux, rather than sending their old PCs to the landfill. Check out YourHomeLinux.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 12:08:00 PM
Re: XP to Linux
Thanks for that link, David. I think Linux is a terrific alternative for machines that would otherwise go into landfills.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 12:06:00 PM
Re: Where to buy Windows 7?
Lots of system builder Windows 7 licenses are available online. They don't entitle you to the normal customer support you'd get with a new PC, or with a Windows 8.1 license, however-- so be sure to read the fine print before purchasing. Also, in early April, Microsoft is expected to release a Windows 8.1 update that will make the OS more usable on non-touch hardware. I'd expect to hear details at Build-- that is, a few days before XP loses support. So if you can afford to wait until the last minute, Windows 8.1 might become more viable.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
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3/25/2014 | 12:10:13 PM
Re: Where to buy Windows 7?
As the story mentions, it's still possible to buy an OEM license. I found them on NewEgg.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
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3/25/2014 | 12:27:41 PM
The Windows/Mac crossroads
Staying on XP just seems reckless at this point due to security and performance weaknesses. At some point old school becomes Old. I imagine most XP users who enjoy the Windows experience will want to stay with it via a Win 7 PC (if they can find one) or Windows 8. But Microsoft should be wary of XP holdouts coming to a crossroads where they're turned off by the radical redesign of Windows 8 and are looking to make a fresh start with a Mac or an inexpensive Chromebook.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 12:39:45 PM
Re: The Windows/Mac crossroads
"But Microsoft should be wary of XP holdouts coming to a crossroads where they're turned off by the radical redesign of Windows 8 and are looking to make a fresh start with a Mac or an inexpensive Chromebook."

Indeed. The May and June desktop usage share reports should be very interesting. In February, there were still upward of half a billion XP systems in use. With a lot of people rushing to upgrade, all that market share has to go somewhere. I think it's safe to say that Windows 7 will absorb more XP users than any other OS. But how many people will stick with XP over the next three months? How many will jump to a Chromebook, a Mac, or Linux? How many of the XP PCs will be replaced by a tablet instead of another PC?

With Windows 7 and 8.1 still accounting for more than half of PC users, it's not like Windows is going to evaporate in importance overnight or anything, especially in the enterprise. But I think it's likely that Windows falls below its historical 90% share of the PC market. But how far below? It might seem far-fetched, but if Windows were to fall to, say, 85% of the PC market, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of doomsday commentaries about the future of Windows (as opposed to, say, the future of Microsoft software that lives in the cloud, instead of tethered to the OS). 85% would still be a huge number-- but it would represent tens of millions of lost core customers. It would also suggest a much grimmer share of recent PC sales, and given the prominence of Windows 7 in the workplace, a near-complete flop among consumers.

Since Nadella took over, Microsoft has been emphasizing cross-platform opportunities more than ever. On the one hand, this rhetoric is in some ways a natural extension of Ballmer's "software and services" framework, which was never proposed as a completely closed garden. But on the other hand, the ramped-up emphasis might imply that Microsoft realizes Windows is less important than it used to be, and that the company isn't in position to reverse the tide.
WKash
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WKash,
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3/25/2014 | 2:52:23 PM
Re: The Windows/Mac crossroads
Michael, I'm curious, what's your take on Microsoft's efforts to move enterprise customers to its cloud subscription model, with Office 365, and how that might play out here if users start considering other OSs?. (Microsoft's subscription plans give users the ability to retain a desktop version of MS's Office suite --  Word, Excel, etc..-- so I presume Microsoft has a big incentive to keep users on some version of Windows OS to operate those offline.)   
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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4/11/2014 | 6:03:12 PM
Re: The Windows/Mac crossroads
Sorry, Wyatt! I missed this question.

I think Microsoft is doing a strong job moving Office and other core properties to the cloud. It's not a perfect antidote to incfreased OS competition; the Mac Office products haven't been updated in some time, for example, and Microsoft will have to show broader benefits to persuade some people that subscriptions are better than standalone purchases. Indeed, they'll have to show broader benefits to persude some people that subscriptions are better than all the free products that have emerged. 

For enterprise customers, I think Microsoft is already making a good case, and Office for iPad could signal some  consumer progress, though the company still seems to have a hazier strategy there. If Cortana, the Windows Phone 8.1 digital assistant, is released for iOS and Android before the end of the summer, that would be a strong statement.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 2:07:56 PM
Re: Should I buy Win 7 Pro or Win 7 Ultima?
I'm pretty sure the difference is that Ultimate includes BitLocker and support for more languages, and takes up more drive space. Otherwise, it's essentially the same as Pro. Windows 7 Ultimate is basically a repackaged version of the Enterprise edition that Microsoft sells in volume license deals to businesses.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 2:15:07 PM
Re: up grading XP
Possibly. Here are the system requirements for Windows 8.1 and Windows 7. If your computer is objectively a "good system" by any modern standard, then you have a decent shot.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 2:23:06 PM
Re: Windows XP
Absolutely, many XP computers will continue to run after April, especially in businesses. And that's not necessarily a problem, if those computers aren't connected to the Internet and/or are otherwise receiving their due attention from IT.

But I'd hesitate to say the "real issue" is component degradation. That's not to say it's a bad point—in fact, it's a really good one. I'm constantly amazed that some people put so much effort into defending 12-year-old computers; unless you replace everything inside the machine, at some point, everything starts to slow down or fail. Even if XP keeps working for your needs, the hardware itself is hardly immortal.

But even so, I think the security  risks are a "real issue." Perhaps not for knowledgeable IT folks (or at least I hope not, given how much sensitive information some of them are safeguarding). But for average users who don't ravenously follow technology? For at least some of them, I fear it could be a very real issue.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 4:12:15 PM
Re: Data Execution Prevention required for Windows 8?
Thanks for the question, Ross. I asked Microsoft to clarify the specific details regarding motherboard compatibility, since I'm pretty sure replacing the motherboard can involve not only technical issues, but also licensing entanglements. I'll post their response once I receive it.

But you are correct that Windows 8 requires a motherboard that supports DEP. The article didn't dive into this level of detail, but this sort of difficulty is one of the reasons we said a lot of old XP systems simply won't support Windows 8.1. EDIT-- After digging around, it seems it would be more accurate to say Windows requires BIOS-level DEP support. I'm not sure what the implications are for all components, since BIOS is part of the motherboard generally but not exclusively. I'll update again when Microsoft sends me more specifics.

In fact, some older PCs lost motherboard compatibility between Windows 8 and Windows 8.1. Win 8.1 required motherboards with CMPXCHG16b support whereas Win 8 did not. So some people with old computers upgraded to Windows 8, found it horribly inappropriate for their non-touch PCs, and then were unable to access Windows 8.1's numerous mouse-and-keyboard improvements. Talk about a bummer.

The next update will reportedly shrink the OS's footprint and enable it to run on cheaper hardware. I think that probably has more to do with incenting OEMs to build new budget Windows 8.1 devices to compete with Chromebooks, but maybe Microsoft will also find a workaround for XP users who don't want to buy new machines. The update looks like it will hit right as Windows XP loses support.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 4:16:27 PM
Re: My XP laptop works like a spare tire
"My Atari 800 is also sitting here... tested it a couple of months go... still works... Now if I could only find that Star Raiders cartridge..."


Haha, that's pretty awesome. And impressive! I've had some gadgets last a long time, but an Atari 800 has to be around 35 years old. That's a long time for it to remain functional.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 4:32:06 PM
Re: up grading XP
That sound promising. You can get the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant here. Run it and it will tell you if your system is up to snuff. Also, it might be useful to check out some of the other posts in this thread about motherboard compatibility and other possible hardware issues. Just because your machine has enough RAM and a fast enough processor doesn't necessarily mean it will run Windows 8.1, depending on other components.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
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3/25/2014 | 5:02:53 PM
Why no inde;pendent third party support?

Why doesn't someone start a third-party XP support business? It's well documented, and security patches follow known update procedures. Would such a thing be viable, outside Microsoft? 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
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3/26/2014 | 3:08:27 PM
Re: Why no independent third party support?
Excellent question. Why no 3rd party support. Are companies afraid of being sued by Microsoft?
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 5:03:41 PM
Re: Data Execution Prevention required for Windows 8?
Interesting. Thanks for sharing your experience. Microsoft hasn't sent over clarification about motherboard compatibility yet, but digging around online, it seems some people with older processors and motherboards were able to make Windows 8.1 work, whereas others had to upgrade components or abandon plans. Good to know there are more options for the older machines!
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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3/25/2014 | 5:55:12 PM
Re: Windows XP
@johnggold,

Thanks for the comments. You bring up many good points, but regarding "defense of upgrades," please allow me to clarify.

Certainly, there are a number of valid reasons that some XP users will choose not to upgrade. As you point out, there are a lot of locked-down, single-application systems out there. It's an issue we explored in some detail in a recent article. I can appreciate why these people aren't upgrading, or why they're doing so somewhat grudgingly. That said, I'm not sure this is the group that's vocally criticizing Microsoft, or painting the company as some kind of bully that's forcing everyone to buy new products. After all, these people are the ones who have the least urgency the upgrade. They know the risks, how to contain them, and what they're gonna do. As far as their needs go, newer computers and operating systems don't provide enough benefit, so there's no reason to upgrade. Case closed.

But remember—sources like Net Applications indicate that nearly 30% of desktop Internet users relied on Windows XP machines last month. It derives its data from Web use, so these statistics are very much derived from real Internet traffic. Other sources peg the figure closer to 20%-- but either way you slice it, we're talking about hundreds of millions of XP computers that are still connected to the Internet. These aren't PCs being carefully safeguarded by a knowledgeable IT admin; they're just normal computers used by normal people. With so many people still using XP to get online, many of them will almost certainly become vulnerable if they maintain their current usage patterns.

There's a variety of scenarios at play. Some people (e.g. IT professionals) will keep using XP because it's actually the best choice for their needs. Others will keep using it because they consider it a compromise but still the best overall value. And so on.

But then there are the people who use XP because they're genuinely dragging their feet, or because they truly don't understand the risks. I know average people who use their computers for email and the web every day, and who generally have almost no idea what operating system is running. For people in this position, it's hard not to defend upgrading.

I also know of businesses that still shackle knowledge workers with decrepit XP laptops. XP might be fine for running a few applications in isolation. But suppose you have, say, my job-- the OS would quickly become a productivity killer! Research on a deadline requires multi-tasking, as does collaboration. All of those screen freezes and system crashes are eventually going to take a toll. I thankfully haven't had to use XP for several years—but again, this is not a hypothetical situation. I have friends who lose hours of productivity every week simply because their XP computers are so darn slow. A few months ago, I might have interpreted these corporate-issued XP laptops as a sign of managers and decision-makers who have no idea what's actually going on among the rank and file. Now, it just seems pretty irresponsible.

My point is, there are reasons both to defend sticking with XP and to defend upgrading. Sorry if that got lost at certain points!

Also, good call with Classic Shell. Windows 8.1 users who've wanted a Start menu generally seem pretty pleased with it.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
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3/26/2014 | 3:09:58 PM
Re: My XP laptop works like a spare tire
Commodore huh? How much storage you have on that puppy :) ?
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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3/31/2014 | 11:17:43 PM
Re: Risk
Is it too late to downgrade to MS-DOS 5.0?
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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3/31/2014 | 11:22:33 PM
Re: Common Usage
My opinion/experience: The consumer tech market secretly drives the enterprise tech market -- at least when it comes to upgrading and adopting new technology.  Execs and their families get the toys at home, then want to adopt them in the enterprise from there.  (iPhone, anyone?)

A great example was Windows 95/98.  What helped drive adoption in business was the fact that many game developers (and other software developers) started developing exclusively for Win 95+ -- with no backwards compatibility.

In the consumer market, however, there has been very little compelling reason to upgrade from XP to 7 unless you're particularly conscious about security (and, let's face it, most consumers aren't).  We are seeing the result of that apathy in the enterprise.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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4/1/2014 | 9:57:07 PM
Re: Common Usage
One thing that I REALLY like in XP more than in 7.  If you have multiple tabs or documents open in the same program, and minimize them or hide them, when you click on the icon, you are forced to switch the particular tab/document you want right then and there.

In XP, it simply took you back immediately to whatever document or tab you had most recently worked with/opened.  This was FAR more efficient and far less time consuming.

So boo on Windows 7 for that.  Mleh.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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4/11/2014 | 6:11:01 PM
Re: Common Usage
That was a personal pet peeve for me, too. It might sound like a small change, but I really didn't like it the first time I used Windows 7. Eventually, though, I got used to it and found ways to make it work for me.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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4/24/2014 | 10:00:46 AM
Re: Common Usage
@Michael: One thing I've noticed is that Firefox doesn't have this problem in Windows 7.  Yet another reason to not use IE, I guess.  (At least, in Windows 7.)
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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4/11/2014 | 6:05:15 PM
Re: Data Execution Prevention required for Windows 8?
So, it's not the categorical response we might have hoped for, but here's what Microsoft said on the issue:

"'NX' is the hardware feature that enforces Data Execution Protection, so in effect yes, Windows 8.1 computers require support for NX for hardware-assisted data execution protection. But there are additional requirements as described here."
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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4/11/2014 | 6:08:21 PM
No love for Mac or Chrome among the XP loyalists?
It's interesting that in all these comments, there's been talk about upgrading an old XP PC to Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or even Linux-- but pretty much no one who's advocating Macs, Chromebooks, or tablets.

Google's been baiting XP users for months-- anyone out there move from Windows XP to a Chromebook? Anyone decide that OS X was a better upgrade option than Windows 8.1?
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