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Tech Lab

For Windows XP, the end is nigh

I drive a 12-year-old Ford, and why not? It’s quiet and comfy, and it gets me there.

Lots of people feel the same way about software. Almost 30 percent of the world’s desktop computers run Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP, an operating system introduced in 2001. About 40 percent of the PCs at The Boston Globe still run XP, and so do 95 percent of the world’s automatic teller machines, according to ATM maker NCR Corp.

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But XP’s hour has finally come. On April 8, Microsoft will stop all technical support for the software. There won’t be any more updates or security patches. Despite the presence of a countdown clock on Microsoft’s website, XP won’t turn to a pumpkin at midnight. Keep using it — if you dare. But when it comes to protecting sensitive data from online thieves, you’ll be on your own.

Well, almost. Microsoft will continue to update the XP version of its free Security Essentials program until July 2015. Other security software makers will do the same. But antimalware programs generally filter out attacks only after some users have already been victimized. Besides, the security flaw that made the attack possible will still be present. The bad guys will keep attacking it in different ways. Antimalware programs will never keep up. Also, a single compromised computer in a home or office network exposes the other machines to attack. Your XP machine is about to become the weakest link.

For Trey Ford, global security strategist at Rapid7, an independent data security company in Boston, that means it’s game over. “There’s no way I would encourage anyone to use Windows XP,” Ford said. “I won’t let anyone in my family run XP.”

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So the next move is a software upgrade. For most XP users, that means buying a whole new computer. Microsoft stopped offering the software at retail in 2008, so the newest of XP machines will be six years old, hardly worth upgrading to newer editions of Windows.

Thrifty users could keep running their old machines by giving up on Windows altogether. The open-source operating system Linux was once fit only for hackers and hobbyists. These days, it uses the same easy point-and-click interface as Windows, so any child can use it, and Linux runs well even on aging hardware. In fact, the government of Germany’s third-largest city, Munich, is urging people to install Linux on their Windows XP machines and providing free copies at public libraries. A popular version called Ubuntu Linux is one of the easiest, and it can be downloaded for free at www.ubuntu.com.

The retirement of Windows XP is the best news for computer makers in years.

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Ubuntu’s no good if you must use standard Windows software, such as Microsoft Office. But for more generic activities — Web browsing, e-mail, social networking, listening to music or watching videos — it’s fine. The same goes for Chromebooks — those sleek, cheap laptops that run Google Inc.’s Chrome operating system. These machines sell for as little as $200 and deliver a decent computing experience.

But for most of us, a full-fledged Windows upgrade is the right move. Alas, most new machines are loaded with the clumsy and confusing Windows 8. Luckily, computers running on the superior Windows 7 system are still easy to buy online.

Along with the new computer, buy yourself an external hard drive and use it to back up all the files on your old machine. Windows 7 and 8 offer a built-in Easy Transfer program. Just connect the new machine to the external drive to copy your files. You can also load files directly onto the new machine through your home network or by hooking up a $30 file transfer cable.

Don’t bother backing up software programs, such as browsers or Microsoft Office; you’ll have to reinstall them anyhow. And don’t be surprised if some old programs won’t run on a Windows 7 or 8 machine. For instance, Microsoft’s own Office 2003 isn’t fully compatible with Windows 8 — you can get it to run, but Microsoft advises against it.

The retirement of Windows XP is the best news for computer makers in years. Sales of PCs have been on the decline since 2012, and the trend is expected to continue, as more people rely on tablets and smartphones. Despite that, Hewlett-Packard Co. has reported an increase in personal computer revenues, thanks to XP upgrades.

For many users, XP seems as reliable as my old Ford Taurus. But it’s really more like the Ford Pinto, that 1970s car with a bad habit of bursting into flames. And the fire department’s about to close. Time to move on.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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