April 8, 2014. That's the day when, after more than 13 years, Microsoft officially ends support for Windows XP. Like millions of others around the world, you may be perfectly happy with your XP system, but it's now time to move on to either Windows 7 or Windows 8. Here's how.
After April 8, Microsoft will no longer release any patches or updates for XP, even if critical bugs are found. The only exceptions will be for large corporate customers willing to pay $200 per computer for a year's extension of "premier" support for hundreds, or thousands, of machines.
Cyberattackers will be able to target vulnerabilities in Windows XP without fear the flaws will be patched, and there won't be anything users can do to protect themselves besides upgrading to a newer operating system.
Experts worry there will be a jump in the number of attacks targeting XP users come April, especially after new flaws in XP are inadvertently revealed by related fixes to Windows Vista, 7 and 8.
Since you're going to have to migrate anyway, you might as well as move toward a XP-free future now, instead of waiting for attackers to wreak havoc with your digital life.
Who's still using Windows XP?
Approximately 15 percent of enterprise users still have Windows XP running on their networks, down from about 35 percent at the beginning of 2013, according to the latest statistics from cloud-security firm Qualys of Redwood Shores, Calif. The company estimates less than 7 percent of enterprise users will still be running XP in April.
The numbers are higher among individual and small business users. About 22 percent of those users worldwide will still be running XP by April, depending on how many people got new computers over the holidays to replace aging machines, Qualys' chief technology officer, Wolfgang Kandek, told Tom's Guide. (Windows XP usage is highest in some middle-income countries with lax software-piracy enforcement, such as China, where as of November 2013 it was still the most common operating system.)
Many Windows XP holdouts will be users who may not even be aware that Microsoft's support is going to expire, Kandek said. Others will be those who don't see any reason to give up on XP. Windows XP machines will continue chugging along after Microsoft ends support, and users may not want to bother upgrading when everything works well.
Some users may be stuck because of custom, crucial applications that work only on XP and would be too costly or difficult to modify for a newer operating systems. There are some options for this group — see below — but the clock is ticking for XP overall.
Pick an operating system
Before kicking off the migration process, it's important to decide whether to move to Windows 7 or to Windows 8.
Windows 7 has the advantages of using the familiar Windows interface and being well entrenched in the marketplace. It may be a bit cheaper to buy a full installation copy of Windows 7 Home Premium (about $90) than an upgrade copy of Windows 8 ($120), if you shop around.
However, Windows 7 is already more than 4 years old. Mainstream support — i.e., free telephone or online support — for Windows 7 will end in January 2015, although extended support, which includes security fixes, continues until 2020.
Windows 8 — technically Windows 8.1 when the latest updates are added — will require a bit of tweaking for many applications, because the user interface has substantially changed from the "classic" Windows look. But mainstream support for Windows 8 won't end until 2018, and extended support will go until 2023.
(It's probably pointless to upgrade to the little-loved Windows Vista, for which mainstream support has already ended. Extended support ends for Vista in April 2017.)
One way to decide between Windows 7 and Windows 8 is to list all of the applications installed on your XP machine or machines, and figure out which operating system supports more of them.
Check the hardware for Windows 8 capability
Windows XP is 12 years old, and many computers running it will be unable to handle either Windows 7 or Windows 8.
Microsoft offers a Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant to help users figure out whether their hardware can support Windows 8. (Microsoft no longer offers the similar Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, but the minimum hardware requirements for Windows 7 and Windows 8 are nearly identical.)
Instead of wrangling with the hardware requirements, it may be simpler to buy a newer computer with either Windows 7 or 8 pre-installed. Buying a new machine is the easiest way to migrate, since it would be just a matter of copying all the personal data files from the older machine over to the new one.
When migrating, it's important to take a look at the configuration and account privileges on the new operating system to make sure the settings are secure, said Andrew Avanessian, vice president of professional services at Avecto, a computer-security firm in Manchester, England.
Many XP owners used administrator accounts as their primary accounts, which exposed their systems to various privilege-escalation attacks. There is no need to repeat the same mistake on the newer systems, as regular day-to-day user accounts should have limited rather than administrator privileges.
Most of the applications installed on XP machines, such as Internet Explorer, Adobe Reader and Microsoft Office, have newer versions available. It's important to install the latest versions of the applications instead of trying to go back to older versions, Avanessian said.
Many popular software applications now have their own security defense technologies to withstand attacks, so take advantage of them.
Upgrading an old machine to newer versions of Windows
If the hardware is good enough to support Windows 7 or 8, you'll still have to do a "clean" installation that completely overwrites the hard drive. There is no option to "upgrade" the operating system from Windows XP to Windows 7 or 8 in a way that preserves all your personal files, applications and settings.
Before you begin, back up all images, videos and personal documents to an external storage drive, and make sure you have your application installation disks or files plus any necessary product keys.
After the new OS is up and running, your files have been copied over and your applications have been reinstalled, the next step is to update all the software packages to the latest versions, when affordable.
For many Internet-related applications, such as Web browsers, media players or Adobe Reader, the upgrades will be free; for Microsoft Office or Adobe creative applications such as Photoshop, be ready to pay a few hundred dollars for upgrades, although free alternative software such as LibreOffice, Photoscape or the GIMP is a quick Web search away.
This is also a good time to check user account privileges and other configuration settings to make sure the system is secure. There is no need to bring insecure habits onto the new system.
What if you still need Windows XP?
You may have a good reason for sticking with XP beyond "It works fine, so why bother?" For example, there may be a custom application that won't work on newer versions of Windows.
Microsoft included a virtualization feature called Windows XP Mode in Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate, which lets users install and run applications as if they were on a native XP machine. (You can still download Windows XP Mode software directly from Microsoft.)
Windows XP Mode isn't available for Windows 7 Home Edition, or for any version of Windows 8, but as long as you have a Windows XP installation disk and a valid user license, then third-party virtualization software such as Citrix XenDesktop or Virtualbox can accomplish the same task.
Virtualization, Kandek said, gives users the security benefits — the secure Windows kernel, regular patches, security mitigation technologies such as address space layout randomization (ASLR), data execution prevention (DEP) and software sandboxing — of a newer operating system while still allowing users to run applications in an XP environment.
When users need to use the custom application, they can switch to the XP virtual machine for that task only. It's the best of both worlds.
Each Windows XP user needs to seriously consider whether it really makes sense to keep running XP after Microsoft discontinues support. The security situation is expected to deteriorate after April 8, and a full migration can take up to six months, depending on the size of the organization.
The time for planning is past, and it is time to act now.