Open source gives new life to old Windows XP machines

April 8, 2014 by Robert Edwards, The Conversation
Saving your old Windows XP. Credit: Flickr/MBK Marjie , CC BY-NC-SA

As the sun sets on Microsoft's support for Windows XP this may be a great time to think about trying out a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) operating system for your still-working PC.

This is especially the case when older hardware cannot run newer versions of Windows (such as 7, 8 or 8.1). Your only other option then is to either dispose of the old XP machine or keep it running and face potential security threats.

But many software developers, both hobbyists and professionals alike, have contributed to a growing body of FOSS programs that now numbers in the tens of thousands. These software programs are licensed for anyone to freely download and use.

To simplify the downloading and installing, collections of these many software components, called "distributions", are available ready for users to download and start using straight away.

Go Linux

Many of these distributions are based on the Linux kernel, which is highly regarded due to its robustness, performance, security, broad support and low cost.

Linux has become the dominant for internet sites, powering Google, Facebook, YouTube and many others. It is also the dominant operating system powering Android phones and tablets, televisions, home routers and many other devices.

Over the years, Linux-based distributions have become more and more popular and any machine capable of running Windows XP is a good candidate for running a Linux distribution such as:

That's just to name a few – there are many more available.

Anything Windows can do Linux can do … mostly

These package together a suite of standard programs which enable you to do the types of things you would do in Windows XP, such as search the web, send and receive emails, edit and print documents.

If your machine can run Windows XP then it can probably run a Linux OS too. Credit: Flickr/Antony Pranata , CC BY-NC-ND

For the most part the user interface and experience is very similar to what you would have experienced in Windows XP and typical alternatives to Microsoft software include:

More software options are available too with many included in the Free Software Directory.

Easy to install

In the early days installing and running Linux on a computer required considerable technical abilities but over the years this has become a lot simpler. Users can now install and configure the system desktop by following a few onscreen prompts without the need for any technical command-line interaction.

But before trying out any new operating system software, it is very important to backup your files to external media such as a USB device, and also to test that your backup works.

To install a new operating system you need to create a bootable USB device, CD-ROM, or DVD of the distribution you would like to give a go. Instructions on how to do this are available on the website of each distribution. Once you have this you simply restart the computer and during the first few seconds of the computer turning on you instruct the computer to boot off the media you created.

Try out the "live" Linux system for a while without installing it on your computer. When you are happy with what you see, there is normally an icon on the desktop that you can use to install the operating system onto your hard disk. Click on the icon and follow the instructions.

You then have the option of installing it either alongside your existing operating system, or overwriting the old system with the new.

Once installed, updates and bug fixes of the operating system and the you run are easily downloaded and incorporated into your system, much the same as they were with your use of Windows XP.

Linux has long been extensively used for servers and so security has always been a key part of its design. Known security issues would normally be quickly fixed and updates made available and there are far fewer viruses or cyberthreats.

Although there are a large number of FOSS games available you may not be able run your favourite Windows game on Linux. There are some ways around this, such as Play on Linux, which lets you run some Windows games on Linux but the latest blockbuster games will probably not work.

What about help?

If you are worried about support then there is a large community of users for Linux in Australia and around the world. Many local user groups exist, such as the Canberra Linux User Group, which has monthly meetings held at the ANU.

Linux Australia has a list of other local Linux user groups. They are generally friendly and happy to help out new comers to Linux. There are also numerous online forums which provide help for working through problems.

So when Windows XP support ends rather than throwing out that old box give Linux a go – you may be pleasantly surprised!

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

Explore further: Tech Tips: A guide to upgrading, using XP computer

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not rated yet Apr 08, 2014
I have been using ubuntu for few years already and it is my main computer but when I need to use Autocad, I still need to use Windows.

BTW, if you are planning to use ubuntu, make sure you have a boot disk (USB), it does crash (occasionally) and you need that to save your computer.
not rated yet Apr 08, 2014
There used to be a poll on Ubuntu Forums whenever they released a new version, asking users what sort of issues if any they had encountered during the installation and use of the latest version. It was persistentely divided into three parts with one part saying they had absolutely no troubles, one part saying they had some issues but they solved them, and one part that they had issues they were unable to solve.

Version after version, until they stopped making new polls in around 2010 I think.

And that has been my experience as well. 1/3 of the stuff works well. 1/3 of the stuff works after you tweak it a bit, and 1/3 of the stuff is broken or missing and cannot be fixed unless you have a PhD in computer sciences and some 1000 hours of spare time to dig in.

I make a point of using some new version of Linux exclusively for a couple weeks every year to see if it can be made to do what I want to do.

I'm still a Windows user.

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