Microsoft’s iconic OS is end of life, time to switch

Earlier this month Microsoft effectively retired Windows XP by announcing that the ageing OS will no longer receive security updates.  At the same time, they announced that the Windows XP version of Microsoft Security Essentials will also no longer be updated.

What this means is that if new vulnerabilities are found in Windows XP, they won’t be fixed, which will leave your computer potentially vulnerable to exploitation.

What it doesn’t mean is that your PC is suddenly going to stop working, although with less and less developers writing programs for XP, now might be the ideal opportunity to upgrade your OS.

Here’s five alternatives to Windows XP that could stretch the life of your PC a little further.

Windows 7

Although it’s now becomming more difficult to get hold of Windows 7 licenses (Microsoft would much rather you bought Windows 8), it’s about as rock solid as Windows XP was, and has the advantage that it’s still supported by Microsoft and 3rd party developers.

Unfortunately, the system requirements are quite a bit higher than Windows XP, so it might not be an alternative for you.  As a bare minimum, Microsoft recommends a 1GHz processor, coupled with 1GB of RAM and a DirectX9 compatible graphics card.  That being said, running Windows 7 on a PC of that age can be pretty painful, but anything made after around 2006 should be absolutely fine.

Upgrading to Windows 7 isn’t going to be free, a license for the “Home Premium” version is going to set you back about £85 on Amazon.  But, it does have the advantage that almost all of your existing programs should work, and you’ll find plenty of free alternatives to most commonly used programs online.

Ubuntu Linux

Most people who are aware of Linux tend to start backing away slowly at the mention of its name, but modern versions of this free OS are a lot more user friendly than previous versions have been.

One of the most user friendly, and hence most popular, distributions of Linux is the Ubuntu project by Canonical.  A new release of Ubuntu comes out every six months, and Canonical has just released a major update known as 14.04 LTS, or more affectionately as “Trusty Tahr”.  The “LTS” in the title stands for Long Term Support, meaning that the developers will provide support for this version of Ubuntu until at least April 2017.

The only major downside to Ubuntu is that support from major software developers and manufacturers is lacking, although it is improving all the time.  As an example, Nvidia currently produce drivers for their graphics cards specifically for Linux, and Valve has announced that most of their PC game titles will be ported to the Linux version of Steam.

In addition, Ubuntu has a dedicated software centre which contains heaps of free software, ranging from productivity suites, to media recording and playback tools, web browsers and chat clients, photo and video recording tools and much more.

In terms of system requirements, Ubuntu is about as resource intensive as Windows 7, which may mean that your PC will struggle with it.  If that’s the case, read on for some alternatives which are specifically targeted to older and slower PCs.

Lubuntu Linux

As you can probably tell from the name, Lubuntu is based upon the Ubuntu project, but with one major difference.  While Ubuntu uses a graphical interface known as Gnome, which requires quite a lot of processing power to run, Lubuntu uses a more lightweight user interface known as LXDE.

While LXDE perhaps doesn’t look as pretty as Gnome, it does require a lot less system resources to run.  This means that you can run Lubuntu on PC’s with as little as 256MB of RAM and a Pentium II processor.  Obviously if your PC has better specifications then this you will notice improved load times and performance.

The cool thing about Lubuntu is that it has access to the massive library of software already written for Ubuntu’s software centre, so you could have a fully functional PC up and running within a few hours, with comparable functionality to your Windows XP setup.

Puppy Linux

If Lubuntu is still too heavy for your PC’s hardware, then you could consider running Puppy Linux instead.  Unlike most other OS’s, Puppy is designed to run from your PC’s RAM rather than from an installation on the hard disk.  Seeing as RAM can be read and written to a lot faster than a hard disk, you end up with much faster performance on pretty anaemic hardware.

The downside to this is that the amount you can do with Puppy is a lot less than a traditional OS like Windows or Ubuntu.  Every time you turn off your PC, the OS will effectively be gone, you’ll need to reload it into RAM from a USB stick or CD every time you boot the computer.

The cool side to this is that you’re more or less immune to viruses and malware from the Internet.  If you think you’re PC might be infected by something, just reboot it and you’ll load a clean version of the OS from your CD or USB stick.

The downside is that you have to take extra special care of your data.  If you’ve just completed a 10,000 word thesis, you’re going to want to make sure you save it to a hard disk or USB stick before you turn the computer off.

Puppy is the most frugal of all OS’s mentioned here, with people reporting that they’ve got it running on a 333MHz PC with 64MB of RAM.  The developers think that 256MB of RAM, or more, is a much more realistic sum for smooth running.

Mac OS X

Back in 2006, Apple made the decision to switch to Intel processors for their machines, which effectively meant that Macs and PCs are more or less the same in terms of hardware.

In fact, Apple provide a tool for Macs that allows you to install a legitimate copy of Windows alongside their pre-installed OS X.

Similarly, it is possible (though perhaps not legal) to install OS X on non-Apple PC hardware.  I’ll be explicit in mentioning that this does violate the terms of OS X’s user agreement, but if you can lay your hands on a version of OS X, it might be easier to think to get it to run in place of Windows XP.

Admittedly, you’re going to need a pretty up to date PC in order to pull this off, and even then it’s pot luck as to whether all of your PC’s hardware will work.  In truth, I don’t really recommend that you try this, but it is worth mentioning.

If you’re curious about running OS X on your PC, there are plenty of resources out there like Tonymacx86 and this guide on Lifehacker.

Whatever you decide, the end of Windows XP support doesn’t need to mean the end of your PC’s usefulness.  There are plenty of alternative OS’s out there that still receive developer support and have comparable tools and programs for many common functions.  If you find you can’t get on with any of these methods, you could always consider buying a new PC or Mac.  This guide gives a good example of how a really usable Mac can cost you less than £100 to buy.

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