You may or may not be aware that Windows 7 is now at the end of its life. On 14 January 2020, Microsoft will officially end all support for the operating system, after more than ten years of active service. What that means is that there will be no more updates, no patches for security holes and no tech support if you need help.
In turn, this means you can't simply carry on using your Windows laptop or PC as it's too risky. We'll explain why, and what you do to ensure that your PC remains safe from any opportunistic attackers.
What does Windows ‘end of support’ actually mean?
When an operating system is fully supported it means it will continue to receive new features, bug fixes and a regular supply of security patches to counter any new vulnerabilities found by hackers.
Windows 7 moved out of any developmental upgrades a while back, but Microsoft has continued with the security patches. Now, from 14 January 2020, the latter will also cease, making Windows 7 essentially a dead operating system.
Is it safe to carry on using Windows 7?
Technically, there is nothing to stop you using your Windows 7 PC the way you always have. It will not stop working overnight. The OS will behaves exactly the same: apps will run, you can browse the internet, and nothing will seem in any way different. But any security holes that remain will almost certainly be exploited by hackers once they are discovered: it's just a matter of time.
Now, it's true that in the past Microsoft has released patches as one-offs when serious vulnerabilities have been found in unsupported products. But there is no guarantee that will happen with Windows 7.
And continuing to use a Windows 7 PC which is connected to the internet could put your data, plus your financial and other personal information at serious risk.
If you want to use your PC offline (disconnected from the internet) at all times then you'll also have to ensure you don't attach any USB thumb drives or other storage devices which could contain malicious software: you need to protect every avenue that data can enter your PC.
However, for most people this is an unacceptable workaround. If you need to be online then doing so without up-to-date security patches is asking for trouble.
Will antivirus software protect Windows 7?
Short answer: no.
While security packages will prevent certain styles of attack, the nature of Microsoft’s updates are different in that they usually address vulnerabilities in Windows itself rather than programs running on the OS.
Antivirus software isn't generally good at stopping the kinds of attacks which seek to exploit holes in the OS's defences. Even antivirus companies such as Kaspersky are advising users to upgrade to a supported operating system.
And that's our advice too: if you can, upgrade your PC or laptop to Windows 10. Keep reading for advice on how to do this, or whether you may be better off buying a new laptop or PC.
Will all of my software work if I upgrade to Windows 10?
It should. Windows 10 can be made to run older apps, but for just about everything other than the most obscure software, that won't be necessary as all popular software already works with Windows 10.
If you do still need to run a particular program you rely on which you know isn't compatible with Windows 10, then you should contact the creators to find out what your options are. (There is also a possibility you can run Windows 7 itself within Windows 10 as a 'virtual machine' and then run incompatible apps that way - see more in our guide to virtual machines in Windows 10.)
If that sounds like far too much hassle, maybe it’s time to find another app that can do the same job, as this will provide you better service in the years ahead.
If you’re looking for new apps then check out the best free software for Windows to get some idea of what’s worth your time.
How different is Windows 10?
For the most part, all the things you’ve relied on in Windows 7 will be there or thereabouts on Windows 10. Much of the underlying system is very similar, while there are also some cool new features that might make the switch even more beneficial. For a comprehensive look at how the two compare, read Windows 7 vs Windows 10.
How do I upgrade to Windows 10?
The process of upgrading is relatively straightforward, although you’ll want to first make sure you make a complete backup of any critical files, documents, music, photos, videos and other data. If you haven’t done this before or don’t have a software package that handles this job, take a look at our roundup of the best backup software to see what’s on offer.
With your data safe, you can download the Microsoft Media Creation tool and follow the instructions given when you run it to upgrade. We explain the process of upgrade Windows 7 to Windows 10 for free in more detail here. You need to select the option to keep your files rather than do a completely fresh installation.
If not, you’ll need to purchase a Windows 10 license which currently costs £119.99 / $139 for the Home edition or £219.99 / $199 for Pro.
You'll find more details in our how to move from Window 7 to Windows 10 guide, but whatever happens, we advise you not to bury your head in the sand and simply carry on using Windows 7 regardless.
If you can't afford Microsoft's prices for Windows 10, there are various options for getting a license for a lot less - find out more about whether cheap Windows 10 codes actually work (they generally do!).