After nearly 13 years, Microsoft is bringing its support for Windows XP to an end in April 2014, and that means a lot of people have a big decision to make. Even if you’re still happy using XP, that support won't be there if things go wrong – it’s one thing that’s been keeping XP safe all this time. Without support there are no more security updates, meaning your PC will be vulnerable to malware and viruses that use exploits which won't be patched by Microsoft.
You could pull out the network cable or switch off Wi-Fi, but the sensible option is to finally move on from XP. That can be a daunting prospect.
Should you buy a copy of Windows 8, reviewed and install it onto your existing hardware? Would Windows 7 be less of a shock, and can you even still buy it? Or maybe you should dive in headfirst and just buy a new PC? We’re here to help you decide.
Windows 7 vs Windows 8: Buying a new PC
Buying a new PC today means moving to Windows 8, right? Not necessarily. Although the big manufacturers such as Dell and HP have been pressed by Microsoft to shift their stock to Windows 8, some companies are still making use of the “downgrade rights” that allow them to offer you Windows 7 preinstalled. Many systems on Lenovo’s website are customisable to ship with Windows 7 Professional, while Samsung and HP still offer business laptops preinstalled with the same. You won’t find the option everywhere, but Windows 7 laptops are still there if you look around – you just have to be a bit more open-minded about which brand and model you’re happy to buy.
The situation is much more flexible when it comes to desktop PCs. As you might expect, you can still go to independent retailers such as Scan and Chillblast and buy custom-built PCs running Windows 7 – at least while their stocks last. Amazon also lists plenty of Windows 7 systems, although mainly through marketplace sellers so you’ll have to use your judgement.
As for buying Windows 7 itself, that’s a little trickier. Microsoft understandably no longer sells it through its own website, so unless you have a disc and activation key you’re not using from another PC, you’ll have to buy an OEM disc - essentially Windows 7 without tech support - from one of the many retailers offering them. It’s easy to do, but you’ll end up paying almost as much as you would for Windows 8: we found genuine Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 discs for £70 at Ebuyer and CCL Computers, both of which had several hundred in stock. Just make sure you buy the correct version for your PC – 32-bit or 64-bit – as each license is only valid for one or the other.
Of course, there’s always eBay, and you’ll find no shortage of PCs, laptops and installation discs knocking around. We wouldn’t trust second-hand Windows 7 keys – at least not while you can still buy an official one that’s guaranteed to work – but there’s no harm at all in perusing the hardware on offer to see what bargains might be out there. Whether it’s worth paying for an older PC when you already have one is something only you can decide.
Windows 7 vs Windows 8: The upgrade process
The upgrade from XP to Windows 7 will wipe all of your applications and personal files, so make sure you follow the instructions for using the Windows Easy Transfer tool to move your files onto an external hard drive if necessary. Once you’re up and running in Windows 7, you simply double-click the “Windows Easy Transfer – Items from old computer” file to effortlessly restore your data.
It might be time to buy new applications, although if any of your old programs don’t work, Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate versions come with an XP Mode. This is a fully functional version of XP that runs within Windows 7, making it possible to run otherwise incompatible software. Download XP Mode here. You’ll still need your original XP installation media and activation code, however.
If you’d prefer to upgrade to Windows 8, that’s certainly the easier option. It can be installed in place over the top of XP SP3 and, although you’ll lose your applications, your personal files will be retained in the upgrade process. You don’t even need to get your hands on an installation disc beforehand. Run the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant to see if your current system can be upgraded, and if it can you’ll be given the option to pay for and download Windows 8 right there and then. It currently costs £100 for the consumer version.
Windows 7 vs Windows 8: The support issue
Of course, with support for Windows XP ending in April, that should act as a reminder that all of these operating systems have a shelf life. It’s worth bearing in mind that official consumer support for Windows 7 – which includes warranty claims and free tech support – will end as soon as January 2015, although Microsoft’s extended support – which includes the all-important stream of free security updates, along with other business perks – will continue until at least 2020. It’s probably not enough to sway your decision if you want to stick with Windows 7, but it’s worth knowing.
Next page: Windows 7 or Windows 8 - which should you choose?
Windows 7 vs Windows 8: which should you choose?
On the last page we focused on the practicalities of upgrading, but what about the differences in terms of how the two operating systems work? So much has been written and said about Windows 8 that it’s easy to fall straight into the mind-set that it’s something of a misstep by Microsoft.
Indeed, seeing and using its tiled interface for the first time can be a bewildering experience, but that doesn’t mean you should automatically reject its charms (no pun intended). The recent Windows 8.1 update has ironed out a few of the more troublesome kinks, and there’s now a fair amount to like about this very modern OS.
The way apps work has been refined, so you can now snap up to four of them together, each taking up a quarter of the screen; this makes big monitors much more usable with apps. The Store has been redesigned to make apps easier to find, and the system-wide search is now very powerful, as it will now look online and in your email as well as on your hard disks. It feels like a solid refinement of what was an initially rough launch product.
We’re not going to suggest Windows 8 has the kind of app selection that would make Apple nervous, but it is growing slowly but surely, and it currently tops 25,000. The bundled apps are mostly very good, especially the newly updated Mail app, while Facebook, Netflix, Skype and more are available in gorgeous full-screen apps. There’s also a small but decent choice of Xbox Live games, such as the well-known Asphalt 7 and Rayman Jungle Run. On the right device – by which we mean one that’s relatively portable and has a touchscreen – these apps can be great fun to play with, and you’ll get them only on Windows 8.
Crucially, you don't have to use Windows 8's new interface: the old Windows XP-style desktop is still there. If you’re upgrading, there’s no denying that an interface built for touchscreens is a bit out of place on an ageing desktop PC.
Thankfully, it’s easy to get Windows 8.1 to stick to its less extravagant desktop persona and make the transition from older versions less painful. If you right-click on the desktop taskbar and choose Properties, then go to the Navigation tab, you’ll see an option to have your PC boot straight to the desktop without seeing the tiled Modern UI at all. The one major difference is that the Start menu has been replaced by the new Start screen, but once you get used to it, it's really not that bad.
This popular Start menu replacement will bring back all the features you’re used to, as well as adding more: you can search your computer, set favourite applications and go directly to sections of the Control Panel, although you’ll probably want to disable the annoying suggested games and apps. It also lets you shut down your PC as normal, although Windows 8.1 now includes shut-down options when you right-click on the Start button.
Unless you change the default programs for playing videos, opening PDFs and viewing web pages, you’ll still find yourself back in the Modern UI from time to time, but with a few tweaks and programs you can live entirely in the 'old' Windows world and treat Windows 8 just like Windows 7.
But if this is the case, does it even matter at all which version you choose? Yes and no. If you’re buying a new PC and it has a touch screen, you’d be unwise to stick with the very touch-unfriendly Windows 7 – but for pretty much any other situation it’s a simple matter of personal preference. In truth, there’s unlikely to be a major desktop application released in the coming years that doesn’t still run in Windows 7, and indeed many gamers would argue that their favourites run more smoothly in the older OS. There’s also been something of a backlash among experienced games developers against Windows 8’s more restrictive approach to software sales.
In truth, though, Windows 8 is faster, less likely to crash and more secure than Windows 7: three of many more good reasons to go with the newest operating system.
If you do opt for Windows 7 over Windows 8 you’re certainly not being backward, as it’s still an excellent OS. You won’t have to mess around with Start menu replacements, and there’s no danger of being hurled back into a different interface when you press the 'wrong' key.
Ultimately, it's up to you: there is no right or wrong choice. As we've said, the decision should be based partly on your hardware and partly on personal preference.