April 8, 2014

Replace the Retiring Windows XP with Linux

Windows XP is officially retired as of April 8, 2014. Microsoft has tried to retire XP several times before, but due to enterprise customer demand had to continue supporting it. But this time they really really mean it, for reals.

If you're using Windows XP, it won't stop working. All this means is you won't get security patches or technical support anymore. So what should you do? You can continue using it, as you always have. Or, you can upgrade to Windows 8.1, the newest Windows, or Windows 7. Or switch to Linux. Let's look at the pros and cons of upgrading to a newer Windows.

KDE desktop

Windows 8.1 has a completely re-designed interface that looks a lot like an over-excited automated teller machine. It adds support for touchscreens, and is supposed to be less obese and peppier than 7. Windows 7 does not support touchscreens, and doesn't look much different from XP. If you buy a new computer that comes with 8.1 and decide you don't like it, you can "downgrade" to Windows 7. Downgrading is a huge hassle that requires having the proper "license rights", the purchase of Windows 7 Professional at $139 for the OEM version, or $209 for the full retail version, phoning home to Microsoft for permission to do what you want with your own computer, and then installing it. The OEM version comes with no technical support; otherwise it's pretty much the same as the full retail version. Microsoft considers this a temporary downgrade, until you come to your senses and learn to love 8.1.

Another option is to purchase Windows 8.1 or 7 and install it on your XP computer. If your XP machine is more than six years old, chances are it won't support the newer Windows releases, because they need considerably more power and storage. Your favorite XP applications may or may not work on the newer Windowses, if you even still have the original installation media, and peripherals such as scanners and printers may not be supported. So the most likely scenario is buying a whole new computer, and possibly new applications and peripherals. You can still get Win 7 PCs, though that option is slowly evaporating.

Try Linux

Any option other than keeping your existing Windows XP system is going to cost money, hassles, or both. So why not give Linux a try? It is a mature, rock-solid professional computing platform you can rely on. You can download it for free, copy it to a USB stick or DVD, and try it without installing it to your hard drive. If there is enough room on your hard drive, you can install Linux alongside XP and choose the one you want to run at boot. If your XP computer is powerful enough and you have your original installation media, you can run XP inside a virtual machine on Linux. Yes, you can have it all.

Let's run through the pros and cons of switching to Linux. First the good parts:

  • Immune to Windows malware, and you don't need anti-malware software
  • Offers both free of cost and supported options
  • Runs great on older, less-powerful hardware
  • No insane license restrictions
  • No artificially crippled versions to justify multiple price points
  • No phoning home to the mothership for permission to use your own computer the way you want to
  • Flexible and configurable
  • Easy one-click software installation and removal, from secure sources
  • Great hardware support, without having to hunt down drivers
  • A giant world of great software for free, and lots of great commercial software
  • Maintained by an open, global community of first-rate developers and contributors
  • All Linux software is available on the Internet, so you never lose it.

There are also some downsides you must take into account. Your Windows applications won't run on Linux, unless they also have Linux versions. For example, Web browsers such as Firefox, Opera, and Chrome run on Windows and Linux. Productivity apps like Moneydance (personal finance), LibreOffice (office suite), Thunderbird (email) and a lot of games run on Windows and Linux. Windows apps like Outlook, Internet Explorer and MS Office do not run on Linux. So you'll need to make an inventory of the apps you need and see if they have Linux versions, or if there is an equivalent you can use. I'll be surprised if you can't find equivalent or better alternatives.

You can make Linux look like Windows. You're still going to have to learn some new ways of doing thing, but as it's all just pointy-clicky it's no big deal. Windows 7 is different from XP, and Windows 8.1 is radically different, so any change means you'll have to learn some new things.

Buying a Linux Computer

Installing Linux is pretty easy, but if you'd rather buy a good computer with Linux already installed there are a lot of great independent Linux computer vendors. They are skilled specialists, and you'll get good hardware and great service. The typical low-budget Windows PC is specced to the micro-penny, and built with the cheapest possible components. Linux shops like System76 and ZaReason engineer their computers with reliable, good-quality components, and they stand behind their products.

Which Linux?

Another Linux advantage is hundreds of variants called distributions, or distros for short. Every one is tailored a little bit differently. Ubuntu Linux is very popular, and offers both free-of-cost downloads, and commercial support options. Linux Mint is a popular Ubuntu variant. openSUSE and Fedora Linux are great distros for advanced users who like to stay on top of new technologies. Mageia Linux is a wonderful desktop Linux for beginners to advanced users. Please visit the Resources section (below) for pointers to all kinds of helpful information.

The Myth That Must Die

I am not a Windows fan. I've worked exclusively in Linux since the early 2000s, except for occasional forays into Windows to keep up with new developments. I've written books, hundreds of how-to articles, done Web development, and all of my multimedia production on Linux. You'd think the richest software company on the planet would be able to make a bulletproof, secure, easy-to-use operating system. They have failed at this, and are still failing. One of my biggest peeves is that Microsoft's marketing created the false illusion that personal computers are easy to use, and require no special training. This is not true. It has never been true. A personal computer is an extremely complex and sophisticated power tool. Just owning a computer does not magically bestow all manner of skills on you. It does not make you into an accountant, publisher, artist, musician, big data analyst, security expert, writer, scientist, or anything at all. Except perhaps befuddled a lot. Windows is not easy. Linux is many times easier to operate and maintain, and many times less restrictive.

You Might Want Android

If all you really need is a nice little portable device for Web surfing, social media, email, reading books, listening to music, playing games, and watching movies then get an Android tablet. Android is a Linux variant, but stripped-down and simplified. You literally poke it with a finger to operate it. ZaReason has a really nice 9.7" tablet, the ZaTab, that is completely open, and not locked down like so many Android devices. Android is also coming to laptops and desktops, so keep an eye on the market to watch for something that might work for you.

The bottom line is that any change away from Windows XP is going to involve expense and a learning curve, so why not consider leaving Windows-land, and investing your time and money in the solid, reliable Linux world?


Weekend Project: Linux For Beginners
Ubuntu Unleashed is the best Linux book for beginners
Ubuntu Linux
Linux Mint
Mageia Linux
Fedora Linux
Cynthia Harvey has a large and excellent body of articles on Linux and open source replacements for Windows applications.

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