What to do with your old Windows XP computer

In 27 days (and counting) Microsoft will end support for Windows XP. The XP operating system has been around for ages (in computer terms), Wikipedia lists it as commencing service in late 2001. I remember it appearing on Lancaster University computers around the time I began my undergrad (Oct 2001) and being impressed with the sharp appearance, reliability and ease of use. This was after using BBC micros, Acorns and latterly Windows 95/98 at school. I bought myself a personal Windows XP machine in early 2007 and used the NT/pro variation of XP for work from 2005-2011.

There are plenty of in-depth reviews out there of XP, so I’ll not go into one. When it first came out I felt it was great, and I suppose for the time; it was. Over years of use what I came to find was it required considerable user input to keep it running quickly. Nearly everyone has complained at some point about their Windows box slowing with age! I’d spend time keeping anti-virus/malware/spyware up to date along with cleaning out the rubbish that was inevitably installed with new software and then checking to see if new software versions were available. Not a fun or interesting way to spend time!

Knowing that XP support was ending in 2014 in 2011 I decided to try Linux, if I didn’t like it I could always revert back to XP for a further three years. As is often the way with leaps of faith; I had been given advice by someone whose opinion I trust, in this case Saber Razmjooei, who was a colleague at the time. Turns out I liked it so much I now use it exclusively for work and also run it on a laptop.

So how does this all fit into the context of the blog post? Well, if you’ve read this far I guess you’ve an old XP machine! As an aside, what’s described here would be a big improvement on a Vista box too. So in 27 days time what are your options?

  • Do something before the 27 days are up!
  • Buy a new computer with a newer version of Windows (or Mac): you may want to go down this option if you have plenty of cash and/or your hardware really is an issue. If you do, make sure you recycle your old machine
  • Carry on using XP: this is a hope for the best option, any security holes will be left gaping open. Really not recommended!
  • Install a new operating system and cut down on e-waste.

I’ll go into a little more detail on the last point, as it’s the purpose of the post! You could purchase a new Windows licence, prices start from about £75 for Windows 7 or 8. Apart from you being able to spend this money more usefully elsewhere (see next paragraph)… there’s a possibility your old computer wont have enough grunt to run either of these operating systems well.

My recommended solution is to try Linux. Linux comes in many different flavours/distributions, my chosen one is Ubuntu. It works very well with most hardware and has a large software repository to go with it. Ubuntu does tend to be a little resource heavy, as it has some fancy graphics easing interface interaction. My 2007 XP machine mentioned above runs Ubuntu quite happily, although I have upgraded the RAM to 4 GB (cost ~£20) and added a dedicated NVIDIA 210 graphics card (~£20). The processor clock speed is a dual core 1800 MHz. So for less than the price of a new Windows licence you could potentially upgrade your hardware and get a new operating system! Win win!

If you’re having doubts about changing to a new operating system, you can try Linux out from a USB drive or DVD. i.e. you can run the operating system on a USB drive or DVD and totally ignore the hard drive in your computer! Full instructions here. If you don’t like it, shut down the computer, unplug the USB and reboot. Voilà! Trying from a USB/DVD is very sensible as it lets you check if all your hardware is working as expected, the most likely place to gets problems are with wifi cards or Radeon graphics cards (the latter are improving).

What if your computer is so old you can’t upgrade the hardware because it’s become obsolete? While Ubuntu is reasonably resource heavy there are other Linux options that are designed to run on much slower hardware. A solid option is the Ubuntu derivitive: Lubuntu, which uses a different user interface to Ubuntu to put less demand on hardware. You can read about other advantages of Lubuntu on the excellent OMG! Ubuntu! blog.

Things to bear in mind:

  • Any software you’ve bought for windows is very unlikely to work on Linux, but there are likely to be free alternatives (examples at the bottom)
  • Make a back up of your data before you do anything! You should be doing this anyway, unless you don’t care about photos etc. (rsync is an excellent way to do this, I may write a blog post on it in future)
  • Don’t expect it to look the same as XP, operating systems have moved on in the 12.5 years since XP was released! They’ll be a degree of familiarisation required, but then you’d be doing that with Windows 7 or 8
  • If you need very specific software packages you should check these or equivalents are available on Linux. An example of problem software would be CAD (computer aided design)
  • Do expect Linux to not slow down with time! I do nearly no system maintenance now as Linux is much better at tidying up after itself. There’s also little need for anti-virus (etc) stuff as there are (nearly) no viruses to trouble you. A firewall (generally provided by your router) will likely suffice
  • Do expect software to (nearly always) update itself. Linux uses software sources and repositories which means software gets updated like the operating system does – at the frequency you set and only when you click OK! Installing software can be a little less straightforward than Windows, mainly to help with keeping your system secure (expect to enter your system password). For most things you can install programs from the ‘software centre’, a bit like play for android or itunes for iphone.

So you read my above point on software being different? Most software for Linux is open source, like Linux itself. This generally means it’s free, but the branding and layout you’re used to may well differ. Classics like Firefox, Chrome and Skype are available. Microsoft Office is not, however I’ve not looked back since switching to LibreOffice. For power way beyond Microsoft Word and Excel or LibreOffice Writer and Calc I now use LaTeX and R, respectively, these do have a learning curve though! For working with photographs Shotwell is a good management tool, I’m getting to grips with Darktable as a Lightroom replacement and Gimp has functionality way beyond my ability for those keen to use Photoshop.

For more information on software I have a short list of specific things I use in my links section. John Stevenson has an excellent post on software for geoscientists, although this could easily apply well beyond any strict definition of geoscientist!