With three versions of Windows soon to be sharing the market, PC Advisor helps you decide which one to choose.
Windows XP forever
Arguing for Windows XP as the OS of choice is the easiest task of all. It's a proven OS that has matured and had plenty of time to bed in, it's almost universally supported and it doesn't make excessive demands on your machine's CPU.
USB and plug and play are universally supported on XP machines - prior to the launch of the OS, users had to install setup drivers for many peripherals they wanted to plug in via a USB port. As a result, XP has enabled the PC to make significant strides towards becoming the digital hub that Microsoft dreamed it could be.
It was crucial to XP's success that it had a far friendlier interface than Windows 98 or any of its predecessors. Microsoft focused on ensuring you knew where everything was on your desktop, and XP was the first Windows OS the firm geared up for multitasking.
Microsoft introduced neat labelling of folders and apps in Windows 95 and refined it with Windows 98, but XP made significant improvements to the interface. It was a far more colourful OS than its predecessors, with large, helpful icons and support for ClearType to improve legibility.
It was also fast and stable, and made it easy for multiple users to share the same PC. Users could set preferences on separate desktops and switch between password-protected accounts via the Start menu.
The original release of XP had much-publicised security failings, leading Microsoft to focus all its attention on producing the security-focused update Service Pack 2 (SP2). Nonetheless, XP quickly became Microsoft's best-loved OS.
XP is fast - faster than both Vista and Windows 7 when run on the levels of hardware that the latter two require. This makes sense: XP supports symmetrical multiprocessing, just like Vista and Windows 7, which means it's also capable of taking advantage of multicore processors (although not within integrated cores).
Its lighter hardware demands and ability to execute several clock cycles at once add up to extremely fast performance.
This means Windows XP die-hards may be better candidates for an upgrade to the PC than the OS. Consult the Belarc Advisor on the Crucial or Kingston Technology websites to check what RAM your machine can accept - an extra gigabyte will be the best tonic you can give your PC. It's also easy to add a Dimm (the laptop equivalent of a stick of RAM) and boost your portable performance.
You can still find processors that will run on an XP system with a fairly elderly motherboard by checking component sites such as eBuyer and Overclockers or even ebay, but upgrading the CPU on a PC that's more than three years old is unlikely to be a cost-effective option. In fact, buying a new barebones system for £200 or £300 and installing XP on that would be a better bet.
Granted, you'll need to add a two-way firewall, since XP's is outbound only. But you can be sure any third-party security software you want to run on it - or any other software, for that matter - will work quite happily.
The only applications and files that don't immediately work on XP SP2 or SP3 are some of the music and video formats that have emerged in the past few years. So if you want to play an H.264 video clip or a watch a DivX film, you'll have to re-encode it first.
For many users, the familiarity and reliability of XP is a winning combination. Chances are this is the OS that you've been using at work for the past five years, so why not use the same one for your home PCs?
It's no coincidence that XP is the OS that Microsoft grudgingly allowed netbook makers to install on the low-power, low-spec machines. It turned out that a hardy, low-cost, lightweight laptop that dispensed with all the bells and whistles of Vista and ran the proven XP OS was exactly what consumers of all stripes wanted.
In fact, leaving aside the success of the netbook, XP SP2 continues to be the OS of choice for more than 65 percent of home PC users, according to web metrics company Net Applications.
The end is nigh
But there is one problem with Windows XP: Microsoft is determined to kill it off. After several stays of execution in which the support cycle for SP2 and SP3 was extended beyond the standard period the firm usually offers, XP is well and truly on its way out.
From 14 April, Microsoft will no longer offer mainstream support for XP, moving the OS into its ‘extended' support phase. By the end of that period, the overall lifespan of XP will be around 14 years - some four years longer than any other OS it's produced.
This means the free fixes and updates to the Microsoft Knowledgebase that you may have become accustomed to consulting will no longer be updated, and patches won't be routinely issued. Security updates will continue, but only customers who have a specific support contract with Microsoft will get other forms of update from mid-April.
NEXT PAGE: the future of Windows XP