FAQ: Good-bye old pal, old paint, Windows XP

Windows XP falls off the Microsoft patch list after today. Here's why, and what it means to you

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Holy crap. I won't be leaving XP behind real soon. But I spend a ton of time on the Web. What should I do?

Most security experts have advised XP users who are sticking with the old OS to switch to a different browser, like Google's Chrome or Mozilla's Firefox, both of which will continue to be patched for at least the next year.

Microsoft claimed different. In a recent blog, Tim Rains of the company's Trustworthy Computing group, contended that switching browsers would not help. "Changing browsers won't mitigate this risk, as most of the exploits used in such attacks aren't related to browsers," Rains said two weeks ago.

While the second half of Rain's statement is true -- most attacks don't rely on browser vulnerabilities but instead target extensions such as Adobe Flash or Java -- the first half is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst: Dropping IE for Chrome, Firefox, or Opera Software's Opera will, if nothing else, eliminate IE-based drive-by attacks. That alone, and running a still-updated browser, can minimize the risk XP users take by continuing to rely on the unsupported operating system.

I'm spooked and want to get out of XP. What are my options?

Two, really. First you can try to upgrade your current PC to a newer Windows. Second, you can buy a new device, not necessarily a PC, not necessarily something powered by Windows, and move what you need, important files and photos, for example, from the old to the new.

Both are fraught with pitfalls and can easily run into the hundreds of dollars to complete. Neither can be fully spelled out here -- that's outside the scope of this FAQ -- but we'll cover a few of the basics.

How do I know if I can upgrade XP to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1?

To check whether your XP hardware can be upgraded to Windows 7, download and run this Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor utility. (A step-by-step set of instructions is here.) A similar tool for a Windows 8.1 upgrade, called the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant, is available from a link on this page.

Should I replace Windows XP with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1?

That's not the right question to ask. If you're not going to get rid of that old PC, you've already made the decision: Go for a Windows 7 upgrade.

Why? Because although Microsoft's made strides to accommodate keyboard-and-mouse users with changes to Windows 8, it's not yet gone far enough to make an XP-to-Windows 8 transition any less jarring than if you'd been boiling coffee on a campfire for decades and all of a sudden changed to an in-home, kitchen-counter-hogging espresso machine.

Two months ago Microsoft appealed to its technically-astute customers, asking them to help friends and family migrate from XP to Windows 8.1. Those users hooted Microsoft down, telling the company that would be the last thing they did before the friends and family broke off the relationship.

If you want Windows 8.1, bite the bullet and buy new hardware that has a touch screen.

But hasn't Microsoft stopped selling Windows 7? Where do I get a copy?

True. Microsoft halted sales of Windows 7 last October on its own e-store, and stopped shipping new copies to distributors around that same time. But copies of Windows 7 are easily found online, including at stalwart outlets like Amazon.com and Newegg.com, which have stockpiled the OS. Windows 7 will be available for years, even to consumers and very small businesses.

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