XP must go: Time to move to Windows 7 or 8?

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As most IT pros are painfully aware, even minimal support for Windows XP and for Office 2003 ceases in less than a year, on April 8, 2014. Even the few security patches we’ve had up to now will stop arriving. And that means huge risks for businesses still running the software. As well as the obvious security considerations, we have to think about whether new versions of corporate software will run under XP, and whether new hardware will have appropriate drivers for it (hint: the answer to both questions is probably no).

It really is time for those products to be replaced and we have to start now; companies can’t just leap into a new operating system or productivity suite the way consumers can.

But with what? Office is comparatively easy. Microsoft offers Office 2013 in several forms, from cloud-based as-a-service (known as Office 365) to the familiar onsite installation. These options suit all kinds of needs and budgets, but it’s the same programs. This is not so with the operating system. We have two completely different choices: Windows 7 and Windows 8.

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Windows 7 launched in October 2009, so it still has a few good years in it. Under Microsoft’s support policy, it gets five years mainstream support, until October 2014, then a further five years of extended support supplying security updates and paid access to hotfixes and tech support. Windows 8, of course, is shiny new, so this operating system gets mainstream support until 2017, and won’t die until five years after that. Most existing hardware will probably be obsolete long before any of those dates.

Part of the decision depends on what legacy software you’re running. Windows 7 offers “XP Mode,” a freely downloadable virtual XP system (license included), on which most software that will run on XP but not Windows 7 can be installed and used. It’s designed to be as transparent as possible to users.

Windows 8

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Windows 8, on the other hand, will run software that runs on Windows 7, as well as its own native apps. Don’t count on running anything older (no “XP Mode” here), unless you acquire and install virtualization software, with its attendant hassles. On the plus side, you can download a free copy of Microsoft Hyper-V virtualization software to Windows 8 Pro.

Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant

Hardware and software compatibility is a hot topic, so Microsoft provides a compatibility site that combines its testing results with crowdsourced verification to show what products work with Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows RT (the OS for ARM tablets). The company also offers Upgrade Advisors, which is software that you run on systems to see if they are capable of running Windows 7 or Windows 8. Or, you can just check the specs. Windows 8 should run well on any system that runs Windows 7 – in fact, it may run better because it is less resource-intensive.

Upgrade Assistant

The bigger issue may be user acceptance. For touch devices, it’s a no-brainer: Windows 8 is optimized for touch (Office 2013 has a Touch Mode, so it’ll be happy on either OS); it’s great for tablets or convertibles. It also, of course, runs the Windows 7 apps on its Desktop. For desktop computers or older laptops, and for companies that primarily run Windows 7 software, either OS can be a good choice, but users will likely lean towards Windows 7. Windows 8 works fine with a mouse and keyboard, however there’s a bit of a learning curve.

Microsoft offers a ton more help for those migrating to either OS, including advice for IT pros and consumers alike. So bite the bullet and start looking now before XP’s demise makes the shift an emergency.

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