Microsoft is ending support for Windows XP on April 8. While you're technically free to keep using the 12-year old operating system, doing so may put you at greater security risk for attack as future vulnerabilities go unpatched.
In Microsoft's perfect world, most users will take the opportunity to switch to Windows 8, even if it is a drastic change from Windows XP. But you don't have to go that route. Although Windows 8 has plenty of redeeming qualities, there's nothing stopping you from adopting Windows 7 instead.
We won't make the decision between Windows 7 and Windows 8 for you, but if you do decide to heed Microsoft's nagging post-expiration pop-ups, we can help you pick the right operating system for your needs.
The case for Windows 7
The biggest benefit to Windows 7 is familiarity. The pop-up Start menu is still intact, and the basic functionality is similar enough that you don't have to relearn much. You can even make Windows 7 look like Windows XP with just a few tweaks.
TOASTY TECH. The default Windows 7 experience bears a strong similarity to Windows XP. (Click to enlarge.)
By comparison, Windows 8 (and the sweeping Windows 8.1 update) has a steeper learning curve. Microsoft got rid of the pop-up Start menu and replaced it with an app launcher that takes up the entire screen. This Start screen is filled with new kinds of apps that are optimized for touch interaction. While the desktop is still available, you may find yourself getting bounced back and forth between the two interfaces. Crucial system commands are hidden in invisible "Charms" and "Hot Corners" that only appear when you move your mouse to certain points on the edge of the screen. Summoning the hidden menus becomes second nature once you're using to it, though there's certainly a learning curve to the unfamiliar system.
Likewise, you can bring back some familiarity to Windows 8 with settings tweaks and third-party software, but it's a much more laborious process. Windows 7 is the safer bet if you want things to stay pretty much the way they are in XP, or if you're buying a new PC for an XP-using relative.
Windows 7 also has the benefit of being a highly refined, complete operating system. From the start, it was a vast improvement over Windows Vista, rather than a complete reinvention that introduced new problems. And since its launch in 2009, it has received a major Service Pack upgrade and countless bug fixes. Windows 7 isn't perfect by any means, but unlike Windows 8, it doesn't feel like a work in progress.
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