For a chosen few however — groups mostly consisting of long-time customers using Windows XP for medical, business and offices purposes — the end of support meant potentially catastrophic problems for long-time users.
Using an older, unsupported OS involves several risks, but don’t give up hope! With a few tips and bits of knowledge, you can carry on running Windows XP with confidence.
The 4 Main Risks of Using Windows XP
If you consider using Windows XP daily, you should know a few things. The end of official support from Microsoft brought a slew of potential difficulties concerning the safety and the usability of Windows XP.
1. Lack of Updated Software
As of February 2016, approximately 7% of worldwide Desktop and Tablet operating systems represent Windows XP. These statistics change drastically from country to country, where as much as 22% of PCs in China still run Windows XP (down from 50% as of January 2014), while 3% of PCs run Windows XP in North America.
Because of the low availability of Windows XP computers, one serious risk often neglected is software compatibility issues wherein companies cease to produce updates for Windows XP software.
2. Information Theft
Information and identity theft, though rare, should be a serious concern for all heavy duty Internet users. The methods hackers employ to steal your online information have become increasingly sophisticated, which is why official support patches for popular OSs are so important.
Tim Rains (Director, Security for Microsoft) mentions some of the serious risks associated with using Windows XP regarding information theft:
One risk is that attackers will have the advantage over defenders who choose to run Windows XP because attackers will likely have more information about vulnerabilities in Windows XP than defenders.
Rains goes on to explain a common method of exploitation — reverse engineering security updates to test OS vulnerabilities. What do these cyber attackers do when given access to your computer? Rains writes:
The attackers that steal the information from computer systems sometimes choose to trade or sell that stolen information to other criminals to use for identity theft and bank fraud schemes.
3. An Infected Computer Spoils the Bunch
Simple tasks like surfing the Web or checking emails are golden opportunities for computer hackers. The risks are multiplied, however, when multiple computers are connected to a network (as is the case with school computer labs). This is especially true if all computers are also running Windows XP; a wrong action taken by a single user may lead to the ruin of an important group resource.
Malicious software downloaded onto your computer can lead to serious security and performance issues. Malware is software downloaded through popup advertisements or illicit Websites. With the growing concern of companies — primarily those which create Internet browser updates — halting updates to their software, effective popup blockers and spam filters are also becoming harder to find for Windows XP users.
Oftentimes, malware will sneak its way onto your computer through seedy software offering a service or disreputable Websites hosting bad software. Any software downloaded onto a Windows XP computer that is not researched beforehand may lead to critical functionality and data loss.
Harmful malware need not be downloaded off of the Internet to infect a computer; malicious software can lurk in a flash drive until coming in contact with a PC. This is particularly problematic for a network of Windows XP computers used daily by multiple people.
4. Tied to the Times
Windows XP was not built for the modern age of fast-paced download speed and large-scale Internet access making Microsoft patches a necessity. A lack of official support means a lack of protection in an ever changing cyber world.
As it is, Windows XP support was extended five years from 2009 to 2014 increasing their original eight to a whopping fourteen years of mainstream support. Patches can only do so much, before increasing online threats require a reworking of the OS, rather than a re-patching of its framework.
8 Tips to Lock Down Windows XP
Although these tips cannot guarantee the safety one would receive from official patch support, they will provide the safest Windows XP experience you can receive. Use these tips as guiding points to give your static Windows XP dynamic protection.
1. Upgrade to Windows XP Service Pack 3
Service packs are like security and performance boosting packets which Windows released for free. Windows XP Service Pack 3 is the latest service pack for Windows XP, released as a Windows Update on May 6, 2008.
The jump from Service Pack 1 or 2 to Service Pack 3 will require much more RAM than the original 64 MB minimum required for Windows XP; 512 MB – 1 GB of RAM is advised, along with 5+ GB disk space. You can download Service Pack 3 under Start > Control Panel > Windows Update. The official disk image of Windows XP Service Pack 3 can no longer be downloaded through Microsoft’s Website.
2. Tweak the Windows XP Registry to Continue Receiving Updates
One way to continue receiving updates for Windows XP is to have recognized as another OS! This simple registry tweak could cause the Windows Update program to recognize your Windows XP as Windows Embedded Industry, otherwise known as Windows Embedded POSReady. Window EI is set to receive official updates until 2019. Follow these simple steps to utilize the tweak:
- Open Notepad.
- Paste the following into the text document.
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00 [HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\WPA\PosReady] "Installed"=dword:00000001
- Save the text file as XP.reg rather than using the default .txt extension.
- Double-click on your new text file to make the change to your registry.
DISCLAIMER: Microsoft has since released a press statement revealing the possible consequences for using this trick.
The security updates that could be installed are intended for Windows Embedded and Windows Server 2003 customers and do not fully protect Windows XP customers. Windows XP customers also run a significant risk of functionality issues with their machines if they install these updates, as they are not tested against Windows XP.
Use this registry tweak at your own discretion, and remember to back up your computer when executing commands you aren’t absolutely certain about.
3. Look Towards the Unofficial Service Pack 4
A developer named “harkaz” took it upon himself to continue developing an unofficial service pack for the public. Concerning his decision to create this service pack, he writes:
Many users – including me – who won’t be able to upgrade their old machines to a newer OS would like to easily install all Windows updates in one convenient package. For this reason I started working on a Service Pack 4 package in September 2013.
The final installment Version 3.1a is available for download online. Harkaz also conveniently explains the content of this service pack in his post.
Windows XP Unofficial SP4 ENU is a cumulative update rollup for Windows XP (x86) English. It can be applied to a live Windows XP system which has SP1, at minimum, installed or it can be slipstreamed (integrated) in any Windows XP installation media.
CAUTION: Unofficial updates and service packs to your OS may lead to compatibility and performance issues; use at your own risk.
4. Research Compatible Software
Some software companies have agreed to provide continual support for Windows XP, while others have halted the production of security and feature updates. For example, most companies which create Internet browsers are not one size fits all in terms of security protection for Windows XP. Firefox is providing limited support for Service Pack 1 and full support for Service Pack 2/3, but recommends Service Pack 3 for full service functionality.
Although Google Chrome has sought to help their Windows XP users with updates after the extended support deadline, they have announced the end of security updates and support April 2016. Opera will continue to provide security support for their Windows XP browser, but has halted compatibility for Windows XP after Opera 36. Make sure the software downloaded onto your computer is continually up to date.
5. Look Under Your Software Rug
Take care of your security needs immediately, which includes downloading reliable antivirus, anti-malware, and firewall software. This not only includes protection software, but any software you usually use as well, including typing and editing software.
Delete absolutely all outdated software on your computer; attackers are smarter than using only inappropriate Websites to harm users. Outdated software, such as Office 2003 and early versions of Outlook, should be deleted immediately and replaced with a newer, recently updated software providing a similar service.
Some software may not be compatible with Windows XP, while others may not receive continual updates, which puts the software at risk of being compromised and exploited.
6. Limit Network Connectivity
Being connected to the Internet may be call for concern on Windows XP, so using a third-party firewall to keep track of network activity will add an extra layer of protection to your computer.
7. Scan Every Memory Peripheral
Scan any and all peripherals that carry data, including flash drives and CDs. Even if files are not transferred from one computer to the other, hidden files may find their way onto your computer through connection alone.
Oftentimes, your antivirus software will automatically attempt to clean your thumb drives; as an extra measure, a simple right click should show you a Scan option so you can scan your thumb drive. Avira Free Antivirus handles this functionality and still provides support for Windows XP SP3 users.
8. Secure Your Browser
Install browser extensions to encrypt your Web activity. Browser extensions are yet another divide between your computer and harmful computer downloads.
HTTPS Everywhere, for example, converts HTTP Websites (Websites supporting the Hypertext Transfer Protocol) to the newer and more secure HTTPS.
The Real Skinny on Windows XP
Windows is an ever-changing, continually developing family of operating systems dedicated to user satisfaction and security. I own several computer running Windows XP, which provide various tasks around the house, none of which have ever given me issues. Few, however, would advocate the everyday use of a computer running Windows XP.
No matter; if you still love Windows XP and are careful with your computer, it should keep you happy for years to come.
How come you’re still using Windows XP? And how do you keep your PC protected?