Most of us expect our PCs to just work. It’s a reasonable assumption, but an unrealistic one. There are simply so many variables to Windows and to the hardware we use to run it, that trouble-free use is but a pipe dream. Once you start introducing different file types and installing programs, those variables multiply. In fact, it’s usually software in some form or another that causes PCs to start behaving erratically.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if Microsoft wasn't about to cease active support for the one of most popular versions of Windows, XP Service Pack 2. During the standard lifecycle of a Microsoft operating system, support is provided via automatic or manual updates, meaning that known security issues are patched regularly and incremental upgrades are applied as you go along.

The now infamous Patch Tuesday is when Microsoft routinely issues such patches and hotfixes. Users with Windows Update set to Automatic will find patches applied and their PC automatically restarting so the changes can take effect. Usually, these updates happen overnight or at some other convenient time so as not to interfere with anything you need to do on your PC.

Windows XP SP2 and Vista SP1 are no more

From 13 July, however, such updates and security patches will no longer be issued for Windows XP Service Pack 2. Nor can Vista users on SP1 expect updates to their PCs. Both operating systems will enter the ‘extended support’ phase, meaning that only exceptionally critical updates will be offered for either OS from now on.

Basically, unless not patching your XP SP2 PC will leave it and other PCs around it vulnerable, Microsoft won’t actively help ensure it continues to run as you’d expect. From now on, the onus is on you – and anyone who cares to assist you – to ensure your Windows PC keeps on running.

Microsoft is keen not to leave Windows XP and Vista users up the creek now that ‘mainstream support’ for older versions of the two operating systems has ended. The best advice for PC users who are currently running Vista Service Pack 1 (or earlier) and Windows XP Service Pack 2 is to upgrade to the newest service pack update for each OS.

You can view information about Microsoft’s support policies at here and here.

Essentially, the advice is to get the latest service pack installed so you can rest easy until 2014 when XP SP3 support will end (Microsoft has no plans as yet to issue any further services packs for XP, but reserves the right to revise that stance further down the line). Vista users upgrading to SP2 are given the same advice, except support for that OS is scheduled to end in 2012.

If you don’t have a reliable or sufficiently speedy web connection, you can request a CD or DVD with the relevant service pack on it. Go to here for XP SP3, or here for Windows Vista SP2, and click the link to order a DVD.  There is a small charge to cover the cost of shipping cost from US (£5.98).

Windows Fix-it

However, there are also a couple of useful extra tools to help ensure your computer is running as glitch-free as can be. First up is the Microsoft Fix It tool – a free download for Windows XP and Vista that Microsoft launched in May. It’s a variation of the Action Center that is included in Windows 7. You can download Fix It for free.

Fix It scans your hard drive for any existing issues and then offers to troubleshoot particular issues it’s found. Rather than leaving you in the dark about what it intends to do to improve the running of your PC, you get a breakdown of suggested actions.

See also:

15 percent of XP users risk security blackout

Windows Vista review

Windows 7 review