Linux for Windows XP Holdouts

Monday May 11th 2015 by Matt Hartley
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For those users still running the ancient Windows XP, there are some Linux distributions well-suited to help them migrate.

After all this time it still amazes me when I see Windows XP used among the public. Some of the most recent examples I've seen in 'the wild' have been with home users and some small businesses.

In this article, I'll look into what the attraction is to continue using Windows XP and which Linux distributions might make the best candidates for a switch.

Change is hard

On the surface, the idea that upgrading your operating system is a hurdle to getting people off of XP might seem silly. But if you're running legacy applications with lost license keys, the idea of upgrading your Windows version might feel a bit risky to the less than tech savvy. In other instances, sometimes the lack of OS upgrades stems from the belief - if it's not broke, why fix it!

For a period of time, this attitude was fine because Windows XP was seeing its share of needed security patches from Microsoft. These days however, this is no longer acceptable. XP has lost its support and rightfully so. It's an ancient operating system that has needed to be put down for sometime now. And for those not relying heavily on legacy Windows applications, the death of XP is a great opportunity to try something new.

Linux Mint

Based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint offers a very familiar experience for anyone coming from Windows XP. The launcher will allow the new user to find pre-installed applications easily and the applets located on the panel will feel natural as well. Mint offers a strong community for support, access to a decent selection of software from the software center, and it provides the user with a real sense of everything just working well out of the box.

It's worth noting that while proprietary video drivers aren't installed by default, they're easily added using Mint's installation tools. Another benefit of using Mint is with their kernel selection tool. For many users, this new feature is truly amazing as it allows you to select the kernel you'd like to use – instead of having one shoved down your throat.

And finally, the Mint updater tool is setup to make sure you're fully educated about the updates you're applying to your system. Each set of updates is assigned a number based on how potentially "unstable" the update might be. I'll be the first to point out that I believe this step to be completely overkill, but I appreciate the gesture nonetheless.

When choosing a Linux Mint release, you should select the one that makes the most sense for your system specifications. Newer PCs will do very well with the Cinnamon or KDE releases. While older computers can run happily with MATE or XFCE editions of Mint.

Ubuntu MATE

Right off the bat, I need to disclose that I'm biased in favor of Ubuntu MATE. I contribute financially to its development through their Patreon page and think the development team walks on water. That said, my initial love affair with Ubuntu MATE was born out of my need to depart from Xubuntu.

Ubuntu MATE offers me a fantastic desktop experience for my older desktop computer. I need to get the most reliable experience possible without being forced to rely on a compositing desktop – Ubuntu MATE addresses this need nicely. I also appreciate the MATE tweak tool provided by default. The ability to completely transform my panel with a simple click under Interface is truly a gift.

For example, I've recently switched my panel layout to the OpenSUSE-like appearance. My entire work flow has now evolved into something that feels more natural and even performs smoother.

Another great performance tweak offered by the MATE tweak tool is the ability to show only a grid of a window when it's moved. This is fantastic for older systems as it allows windows to be resized or moved without dragging down the computer's resources. For me, this tweak has been an instant enhancement based on my usage of this option.

Ubuntu MATE uses all the same packages you would expect to find with Ubuntu. Plus, it's also compatible with Ubuntu Personal Package Archives (PPAs) because its core is in fact Ubuntu proper. I've had great success switching older XP boxes over to Ubuntu MATE and the owners of these PCs took to MATE quite easily. It's logical and it just works well.

PCLinuxOS

Without question, if there is a Linux distribution that "gets" Windows converts, it's PCLinuxOS. Besides being lightning fast even on older "built for XP PCs", the Full Monty release runs a well thought-out KDE installation.

This distro utilizes a simple activity-based layout that makes using the Linux desktop much easier for newcomers. These activities can be broken down into Internet, Office, Games, Multimedia, Graphics, and System. With each activity selected under the PCLinuxOS Full Monty desktop, the wallpaper will display the tools and applications needed to take on the needed task relating to the activity selected. This type of layout is outstanding even for seasoned Linux veterans as it provides related tools in one area, all within easy reach.

In addition to an outstanding layout, PCLinuxOS also offers its users hardware support and a rolling release. This distro will appeal to XP refugees looking for an “install it once and forget it” experience. Software stability is valued and offered over a bleeding edge experience. The general rule of priority with regards to updates are security, stability and then updates to commonly used software.

While PCLinuxOS may not have as many desktop packages as the alternatives above, its stability is the thing of legends. At no time have I ever switched someone to this desktop and had a call later on about an update breaking their system. I mean never, ever has this happened to me.

Now there have been minor issues in the past that were easily fixed with some help over the phone, but never have I had someone with a non-functioning desktop. I cannot say this about ANY other distribution out there.

For the XP user looking to make the switch alone without any help, PCLinuxOS is what I recommend. It just works. It detects your hardware and walks you through the process of installation. Bundle this with the outstanding community who support the project in the forums, and you can easily see why I consider this the "set it and forget it" distro of choice.

Puppy Linux

I know people who own older laptops that, despite being incredibly dated with their XP installations, still have working batteries. Unless you have money to burn, there's little sense in buying a new notebook merely for a new version of Windows.

Now I can't in good faith make the case that a casual Windows XP user is going to be able to install Puppy Linux without some help. But if you're a relatively experienced Linux user, installing Puppy on an XP box is fairly straight forward.

The release I recommend because of this software availability is Tahrpup 6.0 CE based on Ubuntu 14.04. What this means is that if you need to install software that's unavailable from the software repositories, you're free to install a deb package built for Ubuntu instead.

What I love about Puppy is that I can install this on older netbooks or even an old Pentium 4 computer. Considering how many PCs in these two classes came with XP installed, Puppy could be the perfect fit to breathe new life into a computer otherwise destined for the computer recycling center. And perhaps the biggest advantage of Puppy Linux for older XP based PCs is that it not only runs well, it also comes bundled with solid software that runs lightning fast on older hardware.

Once installed, Puppy Linux is easy enough that a person can become familiar with its inner workings over the course of a weekend.

Security Concerns

If legacy software keeps a user married to using Windows, then that's fine. But for the sake of security upgrade to a modern version of that OS! However, for casual users at home and small businesses utilizing software types duplicable on Linux, now is the time to make the switch.

The distributions mentioned above are easy to use, solid and provide an outstanding user experience. Whether it's a small business looking to migrate to something modern like Linux Mint or a home user who simply wants a consistent desktop such as Ubuntu MATE, Linux in 2015 is ready for the masses.

The key to getting folks off of XP is to realize that end users don't seriously upgrade their operating systems without help. This is why there are PC repair techs in most areas throughout the world. To get people off of XP, it's going to take Linux enthusiasts such as ourselves.

We're the ones that need to help folks evaluate whether or not they're ready to make the switch to the Linux desktop. Otherwise, it's time to get them to upgrade to a modern proprietary desktop instead. Either way, XP needs to be taken out to a field and buried due – at this point it’s truly obsolete.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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