Microsoft is done supporting Windows XP. If you want security patches, you’ll have to buy an new boxed copy of Windows or a new PC — or you can switch to Linux and get free security updates for years to come.

Not only is desktop Linux more powerful and feature-complete than ever, the operating system you use matters less than ever. With more software becoming web-based, Linux is on a more even footing with Windows and Mac OS X.

Things to Consider

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Not everyone can switch to Linux. If you have a Windows-specific business application that only supports Windows XP, you probably need to keep using Windows XP.

On the other hand, many people are perfectly happy with their current hardware because it serves them well — their Windows XP computers can browse the web, edit documents, play media, and manage photos. Linux can do all of these basics. Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Opera all support Linux. Dropbox offers an official Linux client, and even Microsoft’s own Skype supports Linux. The push towards web-based software also helps — Microsoft doesn’t offer Office for Linux, but you can use Microsoft’s free Office Online service in a web browser on a Linux PC. iTunes doesn’t support Linux, but popular services like Spotify, Rdio, and Pandora will run in a browser on Linux just as they do on Windows. Linux also has a large assortment of free software programs for everything from writing documents to managing media and editing photos.

You can try to use Windows software on Linux via the Wine compatibility layer, but it isn’t perfect and you may have to tweak the program and struggle with problems. Many programs won’t work with Wine at all. It’s best to use software that supports Linux while you’re using Linux.

Pick a Linux Distribution

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First, you’ll need to pick a Linux distribution. Linux distributions take all the open-source software out there and combine it into a cohesive package with their own tweaks.

Ubuntu has the most name recognition, but Linux Mint is also popular. There are many other Linux distributions, but you should probably start with one of these two. If your computer is on the older and slower side, you may want to try a lighter distribution like Lubuntu, which uses a lighter desktop environment and more lightweight software to perform better on older hardware.

The LTS (long-term support) release of Ubuntu provides guaranteed free security updates until April 2017, three years after Windows XP’s end of support date. When 2017 rolls around, you can upgrade to the next version of Ubuntu for free.

Take Linux For a Test Drive

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Download your Linux distribution of choice and you’ll get an ISO file on your computer. You can burn this ISO file to a CD or DVD or use a tool like the Universal USB Installer to install it onto a USB drive. Insert the disc or USB drive into your computer, reboot, and you should see the Linux system boot up instead of Windows. (If Windows boots instead, you may need to change the boot order in your computer’s BIOS.)

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Select the “Try” option instead of “Install” and your distribution of choice will boot up, allowing you to play with a Linux desktop. It isn’t installed on your computer yet — it’s running from the disc or USB drive. Bear in mind that it will probably perform slower than if it were installed on your computer, especially if it’s running from a CD or DVD drive.

Install Linux on your PC

If you like the Linux system, you can click the Install icon in the live environment to install it onto your computer. You’ll probably want to install it in a “dual-boot” configuration alongside Windows XP if you’re new to Linux. Whenever you boot your computer, you’ll be able to choose whether you want to use Linux or Windows. Just reboot to switch between the two.

A dual-boot system is the best way to get your feet wet while still having that Windows XP system around in case you need it. As long as you’re installing in a dual-boot configuration, you can access your Windows data directly from within Linux.

Warning: If you want to replace Windows XP with Linux, be sure to back up your files first — choosing to overwrite your Windows install will erase all your data. Your data should be safe if you install Linux in a dual-boot configuration, but you should always have backups in case anything goes wrong.

What Next?

RELATED: How Software Installation & Package Managers Work On Linux

You can now use your Linux system. If you spend most of your time in a browser, you can just fire up the included Firefox browser and get to work. If you prefer Chrome or Opera, you can download the Linux version from Google or Opera’s website.

You’ll install most software through a package manager on Linux. Rather than search the web for a program, you open the package manager application — the Ubuntu Software Center on Ubuntu — and choose a program to install. Your system will download it from Ubuntu’s software archives and install it automatically — you won’t have to worry about malware or deal with software installers that try to install adware. When software updates occur, they’ll appear in your system’s software updater so you can update everything from one place. (The Ubuntu Software Center now contains some paid software, but most of the applications inside it are free.)

A few closed-source, commercial programs still come from outside these repositories — for example, you’d have to get closed-source software like Skype, Dropbox, Steam, and Minecraft from the official sources. But most of the applications you’ll use are available in your Linux distribution’s package manager.

You won’t need antivirus software on Linux. Just be sure to watch out for social engineering attacks — you can fall prey to devious attackers no matter what platform you’re using.

Should everyone switch to Linux? Of course not — many people can’t. But, if you’re still happy with Windows XP because your existing computer serves you well, installing Linux is a free way to get a secure operating system on your computer.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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