Windows 7 vs Windows 8

After nearly 13 years, Microsoft is bringing its support for Windows XP to an end in April 2014, and that means a lot of people have a big decision to make. Even if you’re still happy using XP, that support won't be there if things go wrong – it’s one thing that’s been keeping XP safe all this time. Without support there are no more security updates, meaning your PC will be vulnerable to malware and viruses that use exploits which won't be patched by Microsoft.

You could pull out the network cable or switch off Wi-Fi, but the sensible option is to finally move on from XP. That can be a daunting prospect.
Should you buy a copy of Windows 8, reviewed and install it onto your existing hardware? Would Windows 7 be less of a shock, and can you even still buy it? Or maybe you should dive in headfirst and just buy a new PC? We’re here to help you decide.

Windows 7 vs Windows 8: Buying a new PC

Buying a new PC today means moving to Windows 8, right? Not necessarily. Although the big manufacturers such as Dell and HP have been pressed by Microsoft to shift their stock to Windows 8, some companies are still making use of the “downgrade rights” that allow them to offer you Windows 7 preinstalled. Many systems on Lenovo’s website are customisable to ship with Windows 7 Professional, while Samsung and HP still offer business laptops preinstalled with the same. You won’t find the option everywhere, but Windows 7 laptops are still there if you look around – you just have to be a bit more open-minded about which brand and model you’re happy to buy.

The situation is much more flexible when it comes to desktop PCs. As you might expect, you can still go to independent retailers such as Scan and Chillblast and buy custom-built PCs running Windows 7 – at least while their stocks last. Amazon also lists plenty of Windows 7 systems, although mainly through marketplace sellers so you’ll have to use your judgement.

As for buying Windows 7 itself, that’s a little trickier. Microsoft understandably no longer sells it through its own website, so unless you have a disc and activation key you’re not using from another PC, you’ll have to buy an OEM disc - essentially Windows 7 without tech support - from one of the many retailers offering them. It’s easy to do, but you’ll end up paying almost as much as you would for Windows 8: we found genuine Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 discs for £70 at Ebuyer and CCL Computers, both of which had several hundred in stock. Just make sure you buy the correct version for your PC – 32-bit or 64-bit – as each license is only valid for one or the other.

Of course, there’s always eBay, and you’ll find no shortage of PCs, laptops and installation discs knocking around. We wouldn’t trust second-hand Windows 7 keys – at least not while you can still buy an official one that’s guaranteed to work – but there’s no harm at all in perusing the hardware on offer to see what bargains might be out there. Whether it’s worth paying for an older PC when you already have one is something only you can decide.

Windows 7 vs Windows 8: The upgrade process

The upgrade from XP to Windows 7 will wipe all of your applications and personal files, so make sure you follow the instructions for using the Windows Easy Transfer tool to move your files onto an external hard drive if necessary. Once you’re up and running in Windows 7, you simply double-click the “Windows Easy Transfer – Items from old computer” file to effortlessly restore your data.

It might be time to buy new applications, although if any of your old programs don’t work, Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate versions come with an XP Mode. This is a fully functional version of XP that runs within Windows 7, making it possible to run otherwise incompatible software. Download XP Mode here. You’ll still need your original XP installation media and activation code, however.

If you’d prefer to upgrade to Windows 8, that’s certainly the easier option. It can be installed in place over the top of XP SP3 and, although you’ll lose your applications, your personal files will be retained in the upgrade process. You don’t even need to get your hands on an installation disc beforehand. Run the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant to see if your current system can be upgraded, and if it can you’ll be given the option to pay for and download Windows 8 right there and then. It currently costs £100 for the consumer version.

Windows 7 vs Windows 8: The support issue

Of course, with support for Windows XP ending in April, that should act as a reminder that all of these operating systems have a shelf life. It’s worth bearing in mind that official consumer support for Windows 7 – which includes warranty claims and free tech support – will end as soon as January 2015, although Microsoft’s extended support – which includes the all-important stream of free security updates, along with other business perks – will continue until at least 2020. It’s probably not enough to sway your decision if you want to stick with Windows 7, but it’s worth knowing.

Next page: Windows 7 or Windows 8 - which should you choose?