Microsoft is pulling the plug on Windows 7 support, which means that the decade-old operating system will get its final security update today. You can continue using Windows 7 indefinitely — aside from a nag screen that will likely pop up to let you know support has ended, nothing will change. But Windows 7 will likely become less secure over time as new vulnerabilities are discovered, exploited, and left unpatched.
According to StatCounter, nearly 27-percent of all Windows computers were running Windows 7 as of December, 2019. So what do you do if you have one of those PCs?
Option 1: Do nothing
As mentioned above, Microsoft isn’t going to disable your computer or remove any features. Windows 7 is nearly as safe to use on January 15th, 2020 as it was on January 14th. But over time it could become less and less secure.
Over time Windows 7 market share will likely continue to decline as well, which means there’s a chance that software developers will release new versions of their applications that may not support Microsoft’s no-longer-supported OS.
But while you’re probably going to see a lot of headlines about the end of Windows 7 support, the truth is Microsoft actually ended mainstream support for Windows 7 five years ago. It’s been on extended support even since, which means that the only updates have been bug fixes and security patches.
In the long run, it’s probably a bad idea to use Windows 7 for years to come unless you’re using it on a PC that never connects tot he internet. But if you’re thinking about buying a new PC in the next year or two anyway, it’s probably reasonably safe to stick with Windows 7 for now… especially if you go with option 2.
Option 2: Continue using Windows 7, but install third-party security software
Microsoft may be ending security updates for its aging OS, but there are plenty of independent software developers that offer antivirus/anti-malware software. And many of those will continue to support Windows 7 for years to come.
While third-party anti-malware software may not be able to patch OS-level vulnerabilities, they can help detect potentially dangerous software before it can worm its way into your system and cause damage.
Some companies, including AVG, Bitdfender, Malwarebytes, and Panda Security offer free versions of their software, although most also charge a subscription fee for advanced features. Meanwhile companies including Norton, Kaspersky, and Trend Micro offer highly rated premium security software.
Overall this option is a lot like the first one, but with a little added security.
Update: AV-Test has compiled a list of antivirus applications that should continue to work with Windows 7 for at least the next through at least 2022.
Option 3: Upgrade to Windows 10
Technically this isn’t supposed to be a free option anymore — Microsoft promised free upgrades from Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 for the first year after Windows 10 was released. Now you’re supposed to pay $139 for a Windows 10 Home license (or $200 for Windows 10 Pro).
But apparently the company never got around to disabling the free upgrade process.
So you can visit the Download Windows 10 web page, click the “Download tool now” button in the Create Windows 10 installation media section, and then run it to either upgrade the PC you’re currently using or to create a bootable USB flash drive or DVD so you can upgrade a different computer.
If everything goes according to plan, you should be able to update from Windows 7 to Windows 10 for free, valid Windows license and all.
But, there is a chance that everything won’t go according to plan. So you should probably backup any important files, programs, license keys, and other data to an external hard drive, the cloud, or another PC before you get started.
For the most part Windows 10 seems to run well on computers that can run Windows 7. But it’s possible that your computer has some hardware that may not have a Windows 10 driver, which means you could have trouble with some OEM hardware such as card readers or fingerprint sensors.
Still, if you’re worried about running out-of-date software, but you’re otherwise happy with your PC, upgrading to Windows 10 may be one way to continue using it indefinitely without buying new hardware.
Note that eventually Microsoft may actually end the free upgrade process, in which case you’ll have to either pony up some money for a Windows 10 license or try something else…
Option 4: Say goodbye to Windows (and install GNU/Linux, Chrome OS, or something else)
Windows isn’t the only game in town. For more than 20 years, some folks have been buying Windows computers and replacing the operating system with GNU/Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, Arch, or Gentoo, just to name a few. There are literally hundreds of options.
The folks at Ubuntu even published a January 14th blog post titled “Why you should upgrade Windows 7 to Ubuntu.” It’s unclear if everyone would consider this an upgrade, but it is true that for many users Ubuntu (and other Linux-based operating systems) have most of the software you’d need from a modern operating system.
On the one hand, you may not be able to easily run Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. But there are open source alternatives including LibreOffice and GIMP. Popular web browsers including Firefox and Chrome do run on Linux (and grant you access to web-based versions of Office and many other apps if you really need them). And thanks to Valve’s effort to improve Linux gaming, many formerly Windows-only games are now playable on Linux.
There may be a steep learning curve involved with moving from Windows to Linux. But there are even Linux distributions like Linspire that are designed to offer a user experience that’s as Windows-like as possible to help ease the transition.
Not sure Linux is a good fit? Neverware’s CloudReady can turn your Windows PC into a Chromebook by replacing Microsoft’s operating system with a version of Google’s Chromium OS. While Neverware charges for support, there’s a free version of the operating system that includes regular feature and security updates.
Option 5: Buy a new computer
Whether you opt for a Windows PC, a Mac, or a Chromebook, odds are anything you buy today will continue to receive security updates for years to come — especially if you opt for a Windows 10 computer.
While Microsoft is ending security updates for Windows 7 about ten years after the operating system first launched, the company changed the way it offers support with Windows 10. The newer operating system follows a “software as a service” model.
There are no current plans to discontinue Windows 10 and move to something else. Instead, the company delivers about two major software updates per year, plus regular security updates and bug fixes. If you skip too many of the major updates, you may lose out on some of the latest security patches until you upgrade. But as long as you don’t fall too far behind, you should continue to receive support.
Things a little trickier with Chromebooks — Google promises 6.5 years of updates for new Chromebooks. But the clock starts ticking the day a Chromebook (or Chromebox) is released. So if you buy a model that’s a few years old, you may only get 2-3 years of guaranteed updates. Google has started offering even longer updates for some models… but it’s hit or miss, and nothing I’d want to bet on.
Ultimately, if you’re happy with your current computer and you’re only considering replacing it because of the end of Windows 7 support, I’d suggest considering options 1-4 first. But if it’s time to buy a new computer anyway, that’s probably the simplest/safest way to move to a currently-supported operating system.