The day that many people are dreading is fast approaching: Microsoft is ending extended support for Windows 7 as January 2020, which means that it will no longer be providing updates and fixes to the extremely popular and widely used operating system. What you may not have realized was that Microsoft actually ended mainstream support for 7 back in 2015, which was when it stopped developing new features for the OS, and stopped taking support calls from users about Windows 7. It’s a testament to the stability and relative security that it’s still in wide use essentially on the eve of it’s retirement, but like all good things, it has to come to an end.
Don’t panic. You have options, but inaction is not one of them.
The primary question I am asked when briefing clients about retiring Windows 7 in their organizations is whether they should upgrade their existing machines, or buy new ones. The simple answer to this, though definitely not the one they necessarily like to hear, is that buying new computers built for Windows 10 are, dollar for dollar, a better investment than upgrading older PCs. Of course there are exceptions, but keep in mind that most PCs that still have a factory-installed Windows 7 OS are likely 3-4 years old at this point, as computers started shipping with Windows 10 mid-2015.
If you’d like to evaluate whether or not your computer is worthy of upgrading versus replacing, consider these factors:
- If your computer is still covered by a warranty, it’s worth considering an upgrade over replacing it.
- Is your computer older than 4 years? Definitely consider replacing, as many of the hardware parts are actually approaching physical end of life and are more likely to fail, regardless of OS.
- Is your CPU an Intel processor 4th generation or higher? Older CPUs will not fair well with Windows 10.
- Do you have at least 4GB of RAM? No? Don’t bother. Four GB is the bare minimum, and 8GB is recommended.
- Running a lot of older applications that you can’t update or upgrade? Upgrading to Windows 10 will likely break those apps. If your business depends on apps that are unsupported on Windows 10, you and I need to have a different discussion.
Even though it’s technically possible to upgrade just about any computer running at least an Intel Core processor (i3, i5 and i7) and 4GB of RAM, there is still a certain amount of work involved in going through this process (which I will detail in next week’s blog). Even if upgrading to Windows 10 results in a functional computer, you are only delaying the inevitable replacement of the device. Still, this is an acceptable path if your short-term budget cannot cover an immediate replacement and you have a longer-term plan to replace the device. On later model PCs, installing Windows 10 can result in some performance gains as well as definite security improvements, but PC’s 4 years and older rarely improve in performance, and the short-term gains are typically overwhelmed the longer that PC is used in any business-critical environment.
Though its still used on over half of all Windows-based computers around the world, Microsoft has stopped providing certain versions of Windows 7, specifically Home Basic/Premium and Ultimate, to computer manufacturers worldwide. Once the current inventory runs out, the only computers that can be bought with Windows 7 will be business-class machines (such as Dell’s Optiplex and Latitude model lines) with the “Pro” or “Enterprise” version installed. Everything else will be Windows 8 or 8.1 until Microsoft launches Windows 10 mid-next year.
What this means for you:
While it’s true that the average consumer may have trouble purchasing a Windows 7 machine for the foreseeable future, Microsoft has no intention of cutting off support for Windows 7 like it did for Windows XP earlier this year. There is still a very large base of enterprise installations running contentedly on 7 and some companies have only just recently completed their migration from XP! Microsoft will continue to provide licensing avenues for companies that need to expand their existing Windows 7 fleets, and most IT organizations appear content to wait to see what Windows 10 has in store for their companies as opposed to switching their operations to the much maligned 8.
All this being said, if you need a new computer, don’t let the lack of 7 or the presence of 8 deter you from a purchase. As mentioned above, it is still possible to purchase Windows 7 Pro machines, though they come with a premium price as compared to the cheaper consumer lines that sold with Windows 7 Home. If you can’t get a Windows 7 machine, consider shopping for one that has 8.1 (not 8), which has multiple improvements (mostly under the hood) over its predecessor. Be prepared for some transition pain – mostly in learning how to navigate Windows 8’s dual-personality interface, but once you get settled in, the experience will largely be the same as what you enjoyed in Windows 7.
The Windows 8 RTM (Release to Manufacturer) build has been available to technology professionals now for several weeks, and I recently took the plunge by installing it on my Dell Inspiron 1500 laptop. Even though my Inspiron was sold as a “Windows 8-ready” laptop, it definitely wasn’t ready for the RTM build. Despite repeated attempts to upgrade the existing Windows 7 installation (a path most folks will likely take), I ended up wiping out the entire OS and installed Windows 8 from scratch.
First, say something positive…
First impressions are important, and let me tell you, the new Windows 8 user interface is eye-popping and unlike anything you’ve seen on a desktop OS. Versions of this UI have been evolving on Windows Phones, the Xbox 360 and the Zune for months, and the designers behind the look of the OS have clearly been working very hard, and to great effect. The Windows 8 interface is a stark contrast to the shiny, chromed look of Windows 7 or OS X, using bold colors and geometric shapes in what they are calling a “tile” based interface.
It’s engaging, intuitive, and not as huge a paradigm shift in how we work as you might think. On the whole, the new OS ran as fast or faster than the previous install of Windows 7, and even though my laptop did not have a touch-enabled screen, I was able to navigate around the new interface comfortably after spending a few hours familiarizing myself without how it works.
…There’s a “but” and it’s a big one.
If Windows 8 blows your mind with its look and feel out of the gate, be prepared to have some of that wind sucked right back out of your sails. Windows 8 maybe ready for its close-up, but the rest of the world isn’t quite ready for it. Knowing this, Microsoft actually did the only thing it could do: incorporate large chunks of Windows 7 into 8 so as to maintain backwards compatibility with its gigantic (and predominantly slow-to-change) user base. This “layering” of two different OS’s will be a tremendous struggle for the average user, and it’s even a bit of a headache for seasoned technology professionals. In a nutshell, either your applications are designed for and run in Windows 8, or they run in the “desktop” layer, which is essentially a stripped down version of Windows 7. Some of them, like Google’s Chrome or even Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer, run in both environments, but they don’t use the same settings, nor do they communicate with each other! Say, for example, you have Chrome open in the desktop environment. Windows 8 alerts you via audible beep that new email has come in on your Hotmail account (which has it’s own app in Windows 8), so you punch the Windows key on your keyboard to bring up the tile interface. After reading the email, you punch the “Chrome” tile on the start page, thinking to go back to your surfing session in Chrome. Nope, that tile opens the Windows 8 version of Chrome with a blank window. To get back to your desktop session, you have to Alt-tab to the other Chrome window. As you can imagine, this will continue to be confusing until the majority of your applications live entirely in the Windows 8 world, and the desktop environment fades into memory.
What this means for you:
Unless you have a compelling reason to do so, avoid installing Windows 8 on any work computer for the time being, as at minimum you’ll be frustrated and slowed down by the awkward transition phase the new OS will be going through for the next 12-18 months. When ordering new machines, make sure (if the option is even available) to “downgrade” the installed OS to Windows 7. If you really want to try out the new Windows 8, think about purchasing a Surface tablet (arriving later this month) or installing it on a non-essential computer so you can take your time to learn the new OS without hampering your ability to get work done. If you really want to take the plunge, make sure your critical business applications and platforms can work with the new OS, and be prepared for a period of reduced productivity as you and your employees adjust to the new OS.