Microsoft Corp. pulled the plug this month on its venerable Windows 7 operating system. Now it’s our turn.
I’m quite fond of Windows 7; I’m using it right now. In fact, about 30 percent of all the world’s personal computers are still running it. But Windows 7 is 12 years old, and Microsoft is no longer willing to keep issuing software updates to repair newfound bugs and security breaches.
On Jan. 15, the company ended support for consumer versions of the software. Businesses and government agencies can get updates until 2023, but must pay for the privilege. The rest of us are on our own. Which means that the next time some cybercriminal invents a new way to break into Windows 7 computers, Microsoft won’t lift a finger to help, unless you’re General Motors or the Pentagon.
“Every month that passes you’ve got more and more bugs that criminals have figured out how to exploit,” said Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist at the anti-malware company Sophos. “The danger grows quite quickly.”
This leaves consumers with four options: Upgrade your existing machine to the newer Windows 10 operating system; install a non-Windows substitute on your current computer; purchase a new computer; or, do nothing and hope for the best.
Windows 7 was supplied in new computers until October 2016. So there are some not-too-old machines that should be able to handle an upgrade. At minimum, you’d want a machine with at least a 1 gigahertz processor and 2 gigabytes of memory, and most recent PCs easily clear this bar.
The consumer-oriented Windows 10 Home edition costs $139, while the Professional edition, with extra features for encrypting sensitive data, costs $199. When installing a new operating system, it’s best to wipe everything from the computer and start from scratch, so make sure you’ve got backup copies of everything, including the programs you use as well as your data files.
That’s my nickname for converting an old Windows PC into a computer running Google’s Chrome operating system, the sleek, fast software that runs on Chromebook laptops. Millions of our children use Chrome-based machines every day, so they’ll feel right at home.
Be warned: Chromebooks can’t run Windows software. But there are lots of Chrome-based alternatives. For instance, Microsoft makes a version of its Office software especially for Chromebooks. Also, you can use cloud-based programs such as Google Docs, or other programs that run inside an Internet browser.
A company called NeverWare makes a Chrome conversion program that it dubbed CloudReady. The company sells it to schools and businesses, but the home edition is free. I’ve got CloudReady running nicely at home, on an ancient laptop that dates to the mid-2000s, when Windows Vista roamed the Earth.
CloudReady installation is slightly more complicated than firing up a new version of Windows, and you’ll need a 16-gigabyte USB drive to get it done.
But for a little extra effort, CloudReady will wring a few more years’ use out of an obsolete Windows 7 computer.
According to anti-malware company Avast, the worldwide average age of a personal computer is six years. If you’re still running Windows 7, your machine is probably in that ballpark. If so, upgrading it to Windows 10 is a mug’s game. It can be done, but expect to be underwhelmed. Besides, key components will soon be wearing out. Hard drives don’t last forever, you know.
Time to think about a new Windows machine. You can get something skimpy but decent for as little as $350. That’s good enough for e-mailing or Facebooking, and it will run rings around your old machine.
Prepare to spend more if you’re fond of videogaming or other demanding tasks.
Lots of consumers and businesses have already opted for new machines. According to researchers at IDC and Gartner, personal computer sales rose in 2019 for the first time in seven years, because so many users are dumping their old Windows 7 PCs.
Hold what you got
Why not just stick with Windows 7? You might get lucky, especially if you’re careful.
A good anti-malware program is now more important than ever. The big companies, including Sophos, NortonLifeLock, and Kaspersky, say they’ll keep right on providing updates of their software to Windows 7 users, so you won’t be completely defenseless.
Still, only Microsoft can completely seal any major new breaches in Windows 7, and it has given up. So don’t use your Windows 7 machine to do online banking or shopping. And don’t use it to store valuable files, such as financial records or family photos.
It could all be destroyed in a ransomware attack.
In short, store nothing on your Windows 7 computer that you can’t afford to lose.
Better yet, disconnect it from the Internet, and just use it for playing Solitaire.
Now your worries are over.