Updated: October 26, 2019
In January 2020, Windows 7 will come to the supported end of its respectable lifecycle. After this point, there will be no more updates from Microsoft. Since there are roughly 500 million active Windows 7 devices still out there, this raises a very important question: What should existing users do now, and for how much longer can they continue using Windows 7 in a manner that is safe, smart and logical?
I thought, here's a great opportunity to address this concern. I will explore the Windows 7 question from three main angles: security, hardware (and performance), and functionality. We did this thing when Windows XP was about to be retired, and we will do it again now. Oh, and rule no.1: don't panic!
Most people will assume this is the most important aspect. No, it is not. Far from it. There are some security considerations at play, but they are far removed from the fearmongering noise you get on the Internet. If anything, most guides and article talk about how updates are important (but not why), and they neglect the philosophical element of actually UNDERSTANDING what you're doing for computer security to have any meaning.
A good computer security practice comes in layers. You need a reasonable network solution, which means a robust and reliable firewall, and this is often solved by using a router that isn't set to lax defaults. Then, you have the Internet-facing element, and here, you need robust and up-to-date browsers. Firefox and Chrome will do. Lastly, you have the foobar element - which is what happens when things go wrong. Indeed, when that does occur, you need to: a) minimize damage b) ensure the integrity of your data.
I've talked about this endlessly over the past decade and a half. You can use a standard user account to reduce the risk of accidental damage. You can and should use EMET (still works beautifully in Windows 7/8) to make sure applications behave correctly - if a program does something wrong, then it's terminated, no questions asked. And by wrong, I mean software instructions that could lead to problems. And this could be ANY software. That's the beauty of EMET. It does not discriminate.
Finally, failing all this, you must have a reliable, tested data backup plan in place. This isn't just security. This is to protect your important files from theft, fire, lightning, hard disk failures, or even coffee spillage. In fact, regardless of what operating system you use, data backups should be the most critical part of your setup.
So what about system updates?
Indeed, what about them? As you can see, in my list, I've not mentioned system updates at any point. In most cases, they aren't really that important. They can be useful in addressing various bugs, including stability fixes, but it's not a do-or-die situation. The world is not going to end if you don't patch your system for some time, especially if you use all the other layers mentioned above.
A disclaimer here for those of you getting triggered right now. This is advice for HOME users, in their HOME setup. This is not a strategy for businesses. If you're running a business or a server or whatnot, then the rules of the game are completely different. For home users, who often happen to be the only user on their own machine, where user-to-admin exploits and local-access exploits are not important, system updates will rarely matter if the users have good network-facing security (router and browsers).
All of this means that once the Windows 7 support ends, you will be able to continue using your box for quite some time. Most security issues will not necessarily be applicable to your day-to-day usage, and unless you do stupid things, they won't matter. If you do do stupid things, no security will ever help.
To sum it up, here's what you should consider for your Windows 7 (or any version) security:
- Good router, with better than just admin:admin user and password nonsense.
- Good browser - Firefox with Noscript and adblocking, or even Chrome with Noscript, plus adblocking. In essence, this is 99% of the job done really. You can do some extra work by using non-default software, like mail client, media player and whatnot.
- Standard user account - you can even use SuRun if you like. A healthy practice in all situations.
- EMET - Superb framework to mitigate nonsense behavior by programs, whatever they may be. This isn't just a Windows 7 thing. In Windows 10, EMET has been replaced with Exploit Protection, but the concept is identical, and definitely something to use.
- Data backups - You can use Karen's Replicator or SyncBack Free to make copies of your stuff.
- Don't do stupid things, like randomly opening files that are obviously nonsense.
That's all there is to it. No magic, no drama. Definitely no need for any fearmongering. Yes, there are some rough things out there, but this isn't new or special in any way. You are more at risk of some company losing or leaking your data than you are from actively pwning your box. Now, let's move on.
Hardware & performance
When I replaced my old Windows XP desktop, I did it because of hardware considerations. At that time, the old single-core Athlon was getting a bit rusty, and Windows 7 also offered better 64-bit support. Those two factors were what convinced me to upgrade and buy a new beefcake computer, which still runs majestically strong.
Since about 2012-2013, things haven't changed much in the desktop space. Or the hardware space. New processors don't offer significant advantages over the previous generations. The clock speed remains the same, the number of cores is more or less the same, and parallelism still hasn't caught on in the software space, with most programs still doggedly running as single processes.
This means that an existing Windows 7 box isn't likely to see any great disadvantage in the performance space, compared to the newer machines. Nor is this likely to change any time soon. If there's one thing that the whole mobile shift did, it was to convince vendors to try to keep system requirements light, and this also affected the desktop arena. Windows 10 does not really require much more than Windows 7. Disk space, mostly.
Now, if you do intend to purchase new hardware, then you should not use Windows 7 on it. First, it makes no sense installing an out-of-support operating system on a brand new rig. Second, new processors do offer additional features (available through CPU extensions), which Windows 7 most likely won't support. This also applies to peripheral hardware, including new and updated connectivity protocols (USB, Thunderbolt), hard disks, etc.
For me, this will always be the primary consideration - hardware replacement. So when you do get a new machine, presumably a DIY desktop, then other operating systems, like Windows 10 or a recent edition of a Linux distribution, make much more sense.
This is the real deal. Your programs. As long as they run well on Windows 7, you're covered. The only question is, how much time do you have before companies stop supporting an end of life operating system?
We can look at Windows XP for guidance. It took a solid two, even three years before we started seeing a shift. The situation isn't likely to be any different this time around. In fact, it might take even longer, because Windows XP was around for 14 years, and its support extended, which gave companies sufficient time to move on to the next Windows edition - they skipped Vista, so Windows 7 was the obvious choice. Windows 7 enterprise customers have the option to buy extended support, and it's highly likely, as long as this service remains around, there will be no compelling reason for software companies to cull Windows 7 from its lists.
This is primarily important when it comes to Internet-facing software. You do want those patched. This means browsers mostly. As long as there are large numbers of Windows 7 users out there, browsers vendors will likely continue providing updates. We're talking two or three years at least.
Practically, this means that most people will have a compelling - hardware - reason to switch by then. It's not probable that you've bought a new Windows 7 machine in quite some time now, so whatever you have at the moment is probably four or five or even seven years old (or more). Add a few more summers, and you will have the right justification to do a full hardware + software upgrade. Until then, the software should continue working without any major complications.
Just some numbers. When XP was EOL-ed, it still had a market share of about 20%. Windows 7 currently holds roughly 30-35% market. That's quite a share. And it's not something that will just disappear overnight. But if you do start seeing problems - no more graphics drivers, games and/or Steam, software not being updated, then you will know it's time to move on. Sad? Perhaps. Inevitable? Absolutely.
Looking ahead, alternatives. Should you Windows 10?
So, we covered the security angle, the hardware side, the prediction on software support. As long as your machine functions well, you're not likely see to major issues with your programs in the next two or three years. By then, I believe most Windows 7 rigs will be old enough to justify a new purchase and the obvious switch to a new operating system. If you're thinking Microsoft, this means Windows 10.
I've reviewed Windows 10 many times over the years, including various new builds. Bottom line, it's more or less the same as its predecessors, with some surplus annoyances and low-IQ features for the common user. But essentially, you can remove all the nonsense, and then you have a fairly solid, reasonable operating system. The Pro Edition is what you want, because it has features that advanced (and intelligent) users expect, like the ability to create an offline account without any tricks, and disable forced automatic updates.
The quality of updates is less than before (one more reason not to install them blindly), the performance is more or less the same as before, things change way too often, and the sense that this is a super-polished and super-stable operating system like it used to be is somewhat eroded.
But let's not delude ourselves. This is the only version of Windows you can have now, and if you must have Windows, then Windows 10 it is. No sentiments here. Simple needs. For me, it boils down to Microsoft Office and games. I can cry a river, but this is what it is. If anything, I should be angry that there isn't a viable alternative.
What about Linux?
Yes and no. I've been using Kubuntu in a production fashion on my Slimbook Pro2 laptop. Works really great. But then, I still happily use Windows 7/8 machines, because they also work great, I have the reliability and the software that I need, and most importantly, I can use Microsoft Office for when I need to work with book editors and such, and I've got the full gamut of games, some of which still aren't available for Linux.
Saying 'just use Linux' is a wishful dream. It's not like that. Most people can't cope with the switch, hardware question is a gamble, and at the end of the day, there are applications that you don't get. Compromising for ideology isn't worth it. If you can have your full productivity without any problems using Linux, then by all means, this is a good, smart choice. Alas, for most people, this is science fiction.
If you have a Windows 7 machine, you can continue using it part the operating system EOL date. I've laid down the recipe for good security, the hardware will work as long as it lasts, and the software won't just vanish. You will have time to adjust, and this should coincide with hardware replacement. Once that happens, you should definitely leave Windows 7 behind, and get a modern up-to-date operating system to match the capabilities of your new machine.
In the long(er) run, most if not all of the current Windows 7 users will switch to Windows 10. That's the simple reality. I'm not happy that this is the case, but no amount of self-pity will change it. Some people may go for Linux, but this isn't trivial, and not an option for gamers. Speaking of Windows 10, the new system is like the new Internet, more annoying, more in-yer-face, more hyperactive, and all about buzzwords. You can peel this layer of modernistic crap, and then you have the essential Windows, which you can then use happily and reliably for another decade or so.
There. Your Windows 7 EOL options. You might not be happy, but at least you know where you stand. And I know what's bugging you. It's the sense of choice, the control, which you now have so much less of than you had a while back. Windows 10 is less benign than Windows 7, the same way Windows 7 was less benign than Windows XP (I still have the old, original pre-activation license). But don't blame Microsoft for this.
Blame everyone, especially the smartphone vendors. They helped perpetuate the online-cloud nonsense, and this is why the innocence of yore is gone. And to help with any future illusions, don't expect things to become better. Operating systems will become narrower, more restrictive. Just like TV. Just like the Internet. The commercial model has only one direction, and that's the shareholders bottom line. Remember this, put your emotions aside, and try to focus on getting the job done with as little pain as you can. There's nothing else.