(USATODAY.com) - Windows XP is so old, it predates 9/11. The software first landed on personal computers sold to consumers and businesses way back in August 2001. Yet more than 12 years later, a substantial number of PCs with Windows XP as their operating system are still in use.
According to consultant Net Applications, XP machines represented a 29.23% market share last month, ahead of all the PC operating systems that came after it except for Windows 7, which has a 47.49% share. Microsoft's more recent operating systems, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, come in with modest 6.63% and 3.95% market shares, respectively, suggesting an area of concern for new CEO Satya Nadella.
The many folks who still rely on Windows XP will have their own major concern to deal with in a few weeks. On April 8, XP reaches the end of the line. No, your XP computer won't suddenly blow up on that date. But it does mean that official support from Microsoft ceases. Microsoft will no longer issue patches or system updates to protect the machine against viruses, spyware and other malware that could result in crashes, or worse, the theft of personal information. If you run into any other kinds of snags, you won't be able to call Microsoft for technical assistance.
"There is a risk," cautions Microsoft spokesman Tom Murphy. "How big a risk we can't quantify." But Murphy is unequivocal in advising consumers to part ways with the operating system that many have loyally stuck by all these years. "We're really black and white about that," he says.
Though some third-party anti-virus software may provide some protection post-April 8, Microsoft still considers the computer system vulnerable.
The April deadline shouldn't come as a rude awakening. Microsoft announced the date that XP support would end as far back as 2007, but a number of people haven't paid close attention.
IS UPGRADING AN OPTION?
What measures should you take? One option, but only available to a relatively few XP owners, is to upgrade your current machine. You can download Windows 8.1 for $119.99 or 8.1 Pro for $199.99. But make sure your PC meets the minimum system requirements: a 1-GHz processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM (for a 32-bit system) or 2 gigs (for 64-bit) and 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit) of storage. If your PC meets the requirements, make sure you install the proper Windows 8.1 software, either the 32-bit or 64-bit installation disc. (This bit about bits refers to how the PC processor handles information). (One way to find the specs on your old XP machine: right-click My Computer and click Properties.)
Another thing to consider is screen resolution, especially on netbooks - remember those? Microsoft points out that many Windows XP-based (or even Windows Vista) netbooks had a screen resolution of 800 x 600. You'll need a resolution of at least 1024 x 768 to take full advantage of the modern Windows interface.
Critical point: Whether you're going to update your current computer or move to a new one, don't forget to back up all your data onto an external hard drive, USB drive, CD or to one of the myriad online storage services.
Even if your older PC can actually run Windows 8, don't count on any kind of screaming fast performance. And keep in mind that software from outside publishers may also run poorly on Windows 8, if such programs run at all. Microsoft provides a tool available atwww.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/compatibility/CompatCenter/Home that may help you determine which of your programs will work work with Windows 8.1.
Microsoft, of course, would prefer that most of you spring for a spanking new computer, presumably one of the latest models with the 8.1 upgrade, though Windows 7 PCs can still be had. The PC business has been steadily losing ground to smartphones and tablets, so every sale helps. (Windows 8 is designed for both tablet and PC duty).
BUYING A NEW MACHINE
There are surely benefits to modern hardware: The computers are more robust, more secure and better able to exploit the latest networking tools, certainly compared with the XP machine you're about to retire. You're unlikely to get much (if anything) trading in your old XP clunker, but there are deals to be found.
If you're not a serious gamer or plan on engaging in heavy-duty video editing, you can find halfway decent Windows laptops typically starting in the $300 range, though of course, you can spend a lot more for a system equipped with high-resolution touch-screens and state-of-the-art specs. As always, you get more bang for the buck with a desktop PC system, but lose out on the mobility that a portable provides.
If you're feeling bold - that is, you're ready to join the cloud computing age and are willing to eschew Windows altogether - you might consider an entry-level Google Chromebook such as Acer's $299 C720P-2600.
Moving to a Mac is an option, too, but after all your years with Windows XP, that might strike you as particularly radical move. It's certainly more expensive. Apple's MacBook Air laptop, for example, starts at $999.
You may not even remain in your comfort zone sticking with Windows. Windows 8 might make the XP loyalist feel as if he's landed on another planet. The touch-friendly tile-based interface is very different than the standard desktop view in XP and for that matter, other versions of Windows that you've gotten chummy with all this time.
There has also been some scuttlebutt concerning what happens to all the ATMs out there that still run a version of XP, upwards of 95% of the machines, according to Robert Johnston of NCR. Johnston told me he isn't overly worried. Banks have had time to prepare, and protective measures are in place. He says the consumer shouldn't notice any negative impact. "The world is not going to collapse on April 9 from the ATM point of view," he says. That said, Johnston is planning to upgrade the XP system he still has at home.
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THE BOTTOM LINE ON XP
Am I at risk by doing nothing with my XP PC after April 8? Microsoft says you are. You won't get any system updates for XP or be able to call tech support.
Should you retire your current XP computer and buy a new computer or upgrade it?It depends. You can upgrade your current machine if it meets the requirements. Even if it does, don't expect screaming fast performance.
How much will a new Windows PC cost? Deals can be had with prices on laptops starting in the $300 range, even less in some cases. Of course, you can spend a lot more. You get more bang for the buck (but lose the mobility) with a desktop PC.
Is there a learning curve to Windows 8? In a word, yes. The live tile-based Windows 8.1 interface will look unfamiliar to folks schooled on the old Windows desktop environment, though for some purposes, you can still summon screens in the new Windows that look like the old interface.