Computer operating systems are rarely celebrated, but Microsoft’s XP is the glorious exception to this rule. Replacing the much hated Millennium Edition version of Windows in 2001, XP was the world’s default PC operating system for six years. Its desktop wallpaper of rolling hills is the most viewed image in mankind’s history, with 400 million copies of XP sold before the glitchy Vista OS superseded it in 2007.
Remarkably, XP remains the world’s third most popular operating system twelve years after its demise. The NHS’s reliance on it has been criticised, while the impressively durable netbooks sold at the start of this decade tended to feature XP rather than its bloated follow-ups. Indeed, later versions of Windows required 16 times as much RAM and hard drive space as XP. Dated desktop and laptop computers still boot up to that unmistakable five-note melody, and Windows XP devices are used in ATM machines and commercial platforms across the UK and beyond.
System of a down
However, XP is undeniably an operating system from a different era. Launched in an age of dial-up modems and bulletin boards, it was never designed for cloud computing or media streaming. Malware was still referred to as viruses in 2001, phishing had only been experienced by AOL customers, and social media simply didn’t exist. Given the seismic changes in our online habits, is it safe to use an OS from the early Noughties?
Rather annoyingly, the question of safety on Windows XP devices has no definitive answer. Official support was withdrawn five years ago, although Microsoft did acknowledge XP’s enduring popularity by patching 2017’s WannaCry ransomware epidemic. In an age of zero-day attacks, there are clearly going to be vulnerabilities which the most recent Service Pack 3 and a smattering of high-priority updates won’t address. Given their popularity (especially in China), Windows XP devices, therefore, represent an easier target for criminals than Windows 10 machines, or computers running Apple’s regularly-patched macOS Mojave.
Safety in numbers
Nevertheless, XP loyalists continue to value this iconic operating system’s performance, stability, and compatibility. When installed on a device containing modern-day levels of RAM and memory, everything from Facebook to YouTube will work smoothly and predictably. These are some of the steps users of Windows XP devices can take to protect themselves against modern online threats:
1. Install up-to-date antivirus software.
Many antivirus packages retain XP compatibility since software manufacturers are reluctant to ignore the world’s third most popular OS. Raising security settings to a higher level than usual would partially compensate for the lack of operating system protection delivered by XP devices.
2. Use a secure web browser.
XP was bundled with Microsoft Internet Explorer as standard, but IE’s fall from grace means it’s no longer safe to use. The same is true of Google’s all-conquering Chrome. While no browsers are currently supported on XP, Opera version 36 or Firefox with Service Pack 2 installed might be the safest bets.
3. Add a firewall.
As well as protecting devices against malware attacks, firewalls stop confidential data being extracted by unauthorised users. Firewalls may be built into broadband routers, distributed as software packages, or physically plugged in as standalone devices. Hardware can either be bought or fashioned out of a Linux PC.
4. Exercise caution online.
Following any infection, malware is more likely to compromise or damage a Windows XP computer than a more modern OS. Users should, therefore, be wary of visiting websites ending in obscure TLDs (especially .gq and .men) or straying outside websites recommended by search engines.