What to do if you’re still on Windows XP: should I upgrade from Windows XP?

Certain editions of Windows 7 also include a feature called XP Mode – a virtualised Windows XP environment that you can use to install and run old applications that won’t work in the newer version of Windows. This feature isn’t included in Windows 8, but you can set up something similar yourself. For more information on setting this up, see XP Mode, below.

As with Windows 8, after you upgrade from XP to Windows 7, all of your applications will have to be reinstalled in the new operating system. Your personal data may not all be safe, either: Microsoft recommends that you use the Windows Easy Transfer utility to gather together all your files onto an external storage device.

When you’ve been through the Windows 7 installation process, you can attach your external storage device and double-click the Windows Easy Transfer file to automatically move your data onto the new operating system.

The Windows Easy Transfer tool will help keep your data safe while you're upgrading

What to do if you’re still on Windows XP: Switching to Linux

If you bought your PC back when Bill Gates was still running the show, a modern edition of Windows might be too much for its creaking platters. In the Linux world, hardware requirements have remained lower over the past decade. The latest release of Ubuntu (version 13.10) requires only a 700MHz Celeron processor, 512MB of RAM and 5GB of storage space, along with a video card capable of displaying a 1,024 x 768 resolution. Linux Mint 15 goes even lower, supporting 800 x 600 displays.

This means any PC that came preinstalled with XP is likely to be able to run these Linux distros – although if you upgraded to XP from Windows ME or 2000, you might want to look into something lighter, such as Lubuntu.

Even if your PC meets the minimum specifications, it isn’t guaranteed that all your hardware will work right away: you may need to hunt for Linux drivers for your ageing components. Some manufacturers are better than others when it comes to Linux support. For example, Nvidia provides drivers for graphics cards going back to 1999’s GeForce 256, while AMD’s legacy driver support stops at the Radeon HD 5000 from 2009.

If you want to try out Linux without jumping in at the deep end and blitzing your Windows XP installation, you can test drive a “live” installation that runs from a USB flash drive or a CD instead of your hard disk. You can set this up by downloading your chosen distro, then using a free tool such as the Universal USB Installer to create a live-mode boot disk. If your PC has old USB 1 ports, running an operating system from a USB drive is likely to be very slow, so consider burning the ISO to a CD instead.

It's possible to try out or install Ubuntu Linux directly from the installation disc (or from a USB drive)

If you do need extra drivers, it’s a good idea to download them to a USB stick before you begin your migration – especially network drivers, since you’ll be stuck without them. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on the manufacturer’s site, search around for open-source drivers; there are whole communities dedicated to this issue.

When it comes to applications, your XP software naturally won’t work on Linux. If there’s a particular application you can’t do without, you can in theory use the free VirtualBox host to virtualise XP in your new Linux installation – but there are native alternatives to almost every major application, and the situation is getting better with every passing year. Ubuntu comes bundled with the latest version of LibreOffice, which can open and edit Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. If that won’t cut it, you can download the latest version of Chrome or Firefox and log into Google Drive or Microsoft Office Web Apps.

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