Microsoft ended support for Windows XP today. The camps are divided as to whether that was just another ploy to get you to spend more money on another operating system, or whether it was time for XP to go gently into that good night. Keep reading to the end for a bit of a surprise.
Let’s face it, XP was old. Three operating systems have come out from Microsoft since XP, and the fourth is in development (and can’t get here fast enough for some of us.) But once the issues with Service Pack 2 got handled, it was stable and solid. Service Pack 3 only improved that. By golly, it was good.
Now, having started with that, let me state categorically that Windows 7 is a much better operating system than Windows XP. Windows 7 was most unfortunately followed up with Windows 8, which will go down in history as the logical follow-up to Windows Vista and Windows ME, rather than the logical follow-up to Windows 7. However, Windows 7 requires a bit more beef than XP does, and not everyone can just go out and buy a new machine. So if you aren’t ready to spring for more hardware, what are your options?
Other operating system platforms you might consider are Mac OS X (Apple prefers that we say Oh Ess Ten, rather than Oh Ess Ex), and various flavors of Linux. Running the Mac system on your current hardware is possible–not recommended, and definitely not for casual users, but possible. That statement comes with two caveats: First, the process is not easy. It is cumbersome and time-consuming to get Mac onto a PC platform, but I expect that should be a bit easier now that Apple has moved away from the PowerPC hardware onto the same Intel hardware that the rest of the world uses for personal computers. And the last time I looked at the procedure for making this happen, it was a bugger! I haven’t considered it for an Intel platform, and that is because of the second caveat: Doing so is a violation of the terms of service for the Mac operating system. You can own the hardware that the computer runs on, but you don’t own the operating system–you own a license to use it, under the licensing terms. and Apple’s terms are that Apple’s software runs on Apple’s hardware. Period. That’s all, nothing else.
Linux comes in a lot of different “flavors,” as we call the various distributions. Some of them look and feel more like Windows systems, some of them look and feel more like Mac systems. Mac and Linux have a common ancestor, BSD, which is a Unix system. I’ve played around quite a bit with Linux, for maybe ten years, so when I first got introduced to a Mac about five years ago, instead of saying, “Oh, Linux is a lot like Mac,” for me it was, “Oh, Mac is a lot like Linux.” My boss was quite pleased. Linux is not scary. There have been a lot of advances to the installation process, and a lot of great tutorials have been written to make everything a lot easier. At some point I may add a Linux page to this blog, or as part of the next blog I’m working on, but between what’s already out there and being able to hop onto any social media site and ask a question and get a good answer, anyone can use Linux. The upside to using Linux is there is a lot of very cool software available for no charge, much of which comes standard with the installation of the operating system. Linux is largely community supported, and as a result there are a lot of very knowledgable users who will be eager to assist. The downside is that not everything works with Linux. There are some printers that don’t have Linux drivers, there may be some other peripherals that may be wonky at first, but someone’s always working on stuff like this.
If you find you don’t really need a full computer, you could move to a tablet, or maybe a Chromebook. If your main activity is internet related, you may not need a full-featured operating system. If you have great internet access, you could probably move most of your processes to the cloud. We have satellite internet; it has weather limitations, and it has a data cap. We are not candidates for cloud-heavy computing. Additionally, we like to take off and park ourselves away from the internet, but have access to our writing tools, our photography software, our image manipulation software, and stuff like that.
The last, and most radical, possibility, is that you can stay with Windows XP. Furthermore, with a few tweaks, you may be able to do so even more safely than you’ve been doing up till now. Before I go into the details, let me say that I would never have suggested this without having heard a valid argument from one of the most trusted names in system security, Steve Gibson. The transcript of the podcast I got this information from can be found here.
Start by creating a new user and giving that user limited privileges. Call it a “Limited User,” instead of being a Super User or Administrative User. Use that account as your standard account, and ONLY use an elevated account for things that a Limited User can’t do. What will this do for you? It will stop unauthorized changes and installations that can be performed only by an elevated user. Now, here’s something most folks never heard: Most malware gets in through Internet Explorer exploits. BUT–100% of those IE exploits require elevated permissions. So if you’re running as a limited user, you’re already safer than you were on April 7, 2014, running as a superuser or admin user. And here’s something else: 92% of operating system exploits rely on elevated credentials. So if you’re NOT running on an elevated account, you’re blocking a HUGE number of threats that way. Top all of that off with this: if you abandon Internet Explorer altogether–the way Microsoft abandoned IE support for XP past version 9–and use Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, you’ll plug that hole too.
Steve recommends removing Flash and Java. But remember, the only support that is getting discontinued is the operating system updates. Adobe is going to continue supporting Flash, and Oracle is going to continue supporting Java. If you don’t want to remove them because you need that functionality, just don’t get click-happy on every animation you see.
Because some exploits come in through Microsoft Office, if you’re going to continue using an operating system that is not getting updates anymore, at least use an office program that is. Steve recommends Libre Office. For most users, Libre Office offers the main functionality of a full-featured office suite. I do want to caution you, if you are using Outlook for your email, don’t just uninstall Office without backing up your mail program so you don’t lose all your mail, your contacts, and your calendar. There are other mail programs that can read those files, but you have to have them to be able to read them. I’ve used Libre Office, in fact I use it on all my Linux installations. You’ll be able to do everything you need to do with it, unless you are an accountant. But if you make your money with Microsoft Office, you really need to upgrade to Windows 7 anyway, just for the functionality improvements.
Finally, and this isn’t just for XP, but it is certainly much more critical for a no-longer-supported system, STAY OFF THE UNSECURED WI-FI AT MCDONALD’S AND STARBUCKS.
If you’re not ready to leave XP, you don’t need to. But you absolutely need to take these simple steps to make it less of a risk to stay.