How to make Windows XP last for the next seven years

Vista, schmista. Follow our tips for keeping your XP setup humming happily for a long, long time

Windows Vista may be shiny and brand new, but as plenty of PC users will tell you, sometimes newer isn't better. Many PCs simply don't have the horsepower to run the new operating system, and even those that have the juice may get bogged down by processor-and RAM-hungry Vista.

If you've got Windows XP, worry not -- you can keep it running on your hardware for years to come. As with an old car, though, if you plan to keep XP around for a while, you're going to have to spend some time maintaining it. Think of us as your virtual mechanics. We'll give you tips, tweaks and tricks so that you'll be able to keep XP running smoothly, at top performance, for smooth operation and long life.

Don't miss our related story,

Windows XP: Going, going ... gone?

But what if you suffer from Vista envy, and you're interested in more than just maintaining XP as it is? No problem -- we'll also show you how to get many of Vista's goodies, such as greatly improved security, transparent windows, Windows Flip 3D and the Network Map, all without having to spend the money to upgrade or get new hardware.

So, if you've got better things to do with your time and money than upgrade to Vista, read on. There's still plenty of life in your old operating system.

Editor's note: Many of the tips in this story involve installing software or altering system settings. We're assuming that any such changes you make will be to your own computer. Always check with your IT department before altering a company-owned machine.


How long will Microsoft support XP?


Windows XP has been extremely successful; market research firm IDC estimates that Windows XP (Home and Pro) had a worldwide installed base of 538 million copies at the end of 2006. As long as those XP computers are functional and perform well, users find it difficult to justify the purchase of Vista or a new Vista-based PC.

Microsoft Corp.'s support policies reflect this reality. The company's standard life-cycle policy provides bug fixes and security patches (known as mainstream support) for five years after initial release, and security-patch-only support (known as extended support) for an additional five years. Although Microsoft often doesn't provide extended support for its consumer products, the company says that XP Home and XP Pro will get identical support periods.

Microsoft's support road map currently says that extended support for Windows XP ends in April 2014. You need to be on the latest service pack within one year of its release for continued support, which at this point means you must be running XP Service Pack 2.

So the earliest date that XP SP2 support will end is 2014, but history has shown that Microsoft often gives customers a reprieve as these dates draw near. For example, support for Windows 98 was to be dropped in January 2004, but Microsoft extended it by two and a half years to July 2006.

XP's life would also be extended if Microsoft were to issue an XP service pack on or after 2013. Microsoft has a tentative date for XP Service Pack 3 in the first half of 2008. If SP3 is released anywhere near on schedule and turns out to be the last service pack for XP, it won't affect XP's 2014 end-of-support date.


Get Vista's security improvements in XP


With Windows Vista, Microsoft finally got serious about security, baking many important security measures right into the operating system. But that doesn't mean you should simply shrug and accept XP's inferior security; some free and low-cost tools for XP provide much of the same security that Vista offers.

Windows Defender
Windows Defender is exactly the same on XP and Vista. (Click for larger view.)

Antispyware Windows Vista is protected from spyware by Microsoft's Windows Defender -- and the same program is available as a free download for Windows XP users as well. Windows Defender is exactly the same on Vista as it is on XP, so you're not losing anything by not moving to Vista.

It's a good idea to have more than one piece of antispyware on your PC, whether you use Vista or XP. So double up for safety and add Lavasoft AB's Ad-Aware or Spybot Search & Destroy -- or even both -- to your arsenal.

Hardware-based encryption

Vista features hardware-based encryption for laptops, called BitLocker encryption. It uses a hardware-based key and password protection so that if your laptop is stolen, no one will be able to view any of the data. You can get much the same functionality from Kensington Computer Products Group's PC Key ($70). You use a special USB key and password combo to encrypt the hard drive; if someone gets your laptop, they won't be able to read anything.

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