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So You're Still Using Windows XP?
April 5, 2014
The magic, “Drop Dead” date when Microsoft is ending support for XP is nigh upon us. Maybe as you read this it has already passed. You are in a panic because your old reliable computer is still running XP and there are massive predictions of doom and gloom if you don't “upgrade” immediately. What is one to do?
This “Computer Guy” has some forthright opinions on the topic, and whether you like it or not, I am gonna give em to you. If you love Microsoft, you might not like my opinions. If you are a “techie” who is firmly in the “Microsoft Camp” I know you will not like my opinions. So be it. No one is forcing you to read this. However, if you are just an ordinary, non-technical user, perhaps I can allay some of your fears. Make no mistake, this campaign to force users to upgrade is exploiting fear to sell you a product. There are some real concerns behind the push, but the fears are greatly overblown.
April 8, 2014 is the “Magic Date” when Microsoft stops supporting XP. What precisely does this mean? Well, first and foremost, it means that those annoying “updates” that Microsoft keeps rolling out on a regular basis, interrupting your work and forcing you to reboot in the middle of a project will stop. Some might feel that is not an entirely bad thing.
As if they needed to add to the annoyance-factor of the normal update cycle, Microsoft is using the update mechanism to send annoying pop-up warnings to users, telling them to upgrade or else face dire consequences. This is really upping my “Microsoft Annoyance” quotient. After April 8 we can shut off the “automatic Update” process and make all this annoying stuff go away.
The annoying updates will stop, but the bad guys will keep finding flaws in the system that they can use to hijack your system, or the information you have in it. That can be even more annoying. However, there is no magic thing that is going to happen on April 9th that is immediately going to compromise your computer. Sure, in time someone might find a really bad flaw, but in the short term, nothing is going to be any different on April 9th, or May 9th, or June 9th. Until someone finds a really nasty flaw, things will pretty much tick along as usual.
Still, there are bad guys out there who are constantly trying. You want to do what you can to protect yourself. Even without Microsoft's annoying, but effective updates, there is a lot you can do. The first, and most important thing is to think real hard about what might be on your computer that a bad guy might want, what information could do you harm if someone got it.
If you have financial records, tax returns and so on on your computer, you might consider whether you really need them there for example. Sensitive material that you do not really need on a computer might be better stored somewhere else. How often do you need to access your 2004 tax return for example. Might it just as well be stored somewhere else? USB memory sticks are cheap and reliable. External hard drives are available for bigger stuff. Stuff can be burned to a CD or DVD.
Personally, I like to burn my tax returns and other financials to a CD, and place the CD in a file cabinet along with a paper copy of the documents. That works well, and the data is accessible without a computer. The problem is that such records are bulky and heavy, and a pain to move.
There is encryption for really sensitive data that you do want to keep online. The free application TRUECRYPT can create a “vault” on your hard drive. Anything placed in the vault is unreadable to anyone without the password, even if they do succeed in accessing the computer. Keeping truly sensitive data in an encrypted vault is a good idea whether your Operating system is supported or not.
The next line of defense is your Anti-Virus system. Many computers ship from the factory with McAfee products. McAfee is owned by Intel, and most people “in the know” consider it lacking. There are several better ones out there. McAfee is fairly expensive, but there are plenty of free ones. Google “Free Antivirus Reviews” for PC Magazine's most recent review of free solutions for 2014. AVG typically scores near the top.
Microsoft offers their own Microsoft Security Essentials for free. In the past I have often recommended it, but they have fallen behind a bit. In the most recent comparisons, it missed a lot of bad stuff. Still, if you use it and like it, Microsoft is supporting their own Antivirus on XP thru July 14, 2015. That should tell you something.
Whatever Antivirus you use, make sure it is up to date and working.
The next, and arguably most important line of defense is your browser. With the ending of Microsoft's support for XP, there are no new versions of Internet Explorer in the pipeline for XP. In truth, XP users have already been left in the cold for some time. The current IE for XP is IE version 8. The current version for Windows 8 is version 11. Internet Explorer (or as I like to call it, Internet Exploder) version 8 is, frankly, terrible, and should NEVER be used by anyone for anything.
Friends do not let friends use Internet Exploder. Period! Especially not on XP!
Google Chrome seems to currently have the best, fastest and most secure Browser, and fully supports Windows XP. Firefox is not too bad, but in the Browser wars, Chrome is currently top dog. Either is much better than IE. Both are FREE.
If you install Chrome as your default browser, a good (FREE) Anti-Virus solution, and encrypt or remove your more sensitive data from your computer, you can safely continue to use XP without worries for a long time yet.
The day will come however when you are ready to move off XP. If your machine is relatively new, you might be able to upgrade it to Windows 8. Microsoft has a free Windows Upgrade Advisor that will look your machine over and let you know if this is possible.
If Windows 8 is not in the cards, there are still alternatives to throwing away perfectly good hardware. If you are even slightly technically adept, or have a friend who is, something called Ubuntu is a good alternative solution. Surf over to www.ubuntu.com and check it out. I recommend it highly. If you do not have any particular Windows specific needs, Ubuntu is excellent, and I have long used it with good results. Installing Ubuntu yourself can be a little “geeky' but once it is up and running it is, frankly, easier to use than Windows 8. Much easier.
Finally, if you are ready to move, and buying a new machine to use, I recommend making the jump straight to the latest Windows 8 flavor. Don't mess around with older Windows 7. Yes the learning curve is steeper, but it's really not all that different. As an alternative, a Mac is a wonderful, if slightly more expensive alternative.
Whether you move to Windows 8, jump to a Mac, or even Ubuntu, don't get panicky and feel forced to make a change before you are ready. There is simply no reason at all that you cannot still use XP for some months to come. Take your time, explore your options. There are lots of choices, and no reason to rush.