Technology

Protect Your PC After Windows XP Support Ends

Here's how to guard against viruses and other malware once Microsoft stops updating the popular operating system in April.

Your computer will soon be more vulnerable to viruses and other malware if it runs Windows XP. That’s because Microsoft is ending support on April 8, 2014, for its 12-year-old operating system – still the second most popular OS after Windows 7, according to NetMarketShare.

A computer running Windows XP will still work, but you’ll no longer receive security updates from Microsoft to protect your machine from malicious software (malware, for short) that can gain control of your PC and steal your personal information. You also will no longer be able to download Microsoft Security Essentials after April 8, though Microsoft will continue to provide updates to this free anti-malware application through July 14, 2015.

If you install Microsoft Security Essentials before the April deadline, you will receive some protection against certain malware but your computer won’t be fully protected, a Microsoft spokesperson says.

So what do you need to do to protect your Windows XP computer? Here are some options, along with the costs associated with each:

Option 1: Upgrade your current computer. Microsoft recommends that you switch to a supported operating system, ideally Windows 8.1. Of course, there’s a cost associated with that. You can upgrade to Windows 8.1 for $119.99 if your computer meets the system requirements (run the Microsoft upgrade assistant to see if it does). You also could upgrade to an older system that’s still supported but cheaper than Windows 8.1, such as Windows 7 ($89.99, Amazon).

Option 2: Buy a new computer. If your computer doesn’t meet the requirements to operate Windows 8.1, you’ll have to buy a new one if you want to use Microsoft’s newest operating system. Prices will vary depending on size and specifications, of course, but several 15-inch laptop computers that support this Windows system start at around $400.

Or you could opt for a new Mac computer from Apple, which will cost $1,000 or more. Security experts say that Macs are less likely to become infected with malicious software because most malware is designed to attack PCs.

Option 3: Boost your XP PC’s security. Mark McCurley, senior information security advisor for Identity Theft 911, which provides identity management and data risk management services, agrees that the best option to protect your computer is to upgrade to the latest version of Windows. But if that is cost-prohibitive or if you have legacy applications not supported by newer versions of Windows, he says there are several steps you can take to boost your computer’s security.

Start by downloading the free Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer tool to find out what security patches you need, he says. Also use Microsoft’s security checklist to see what changes you need to make to your computer’s settings to make it more secure.

McCurley also recommends downloading a free anti-virus tool, such as Avast, and a free anti-malware tool, such as Malwarebytes. Don't get hung up on the distinction between a virus and malware; a virus is simply a type of malware. However, different anti-virus and anti-malware tools will protect against different known threats, so downloading both is a prudent step.

While free anti-virus and anti-malware tools guard against known threats, McCurley says they won't protect PCs from what's known as "zero-day malware," which is an unknown virus or other malware. He says the best added layer of protection against zero-day malware is a security application called AppGuard.

AppGuard was launched in October 2013 as a consumer tool by Blue Ridge Networks, which has been providing similar security applications for government agencies for the past 17 years. John Higginbotham, chairman and CEO of Blue Ridge Networks, claims that AppGuard is the first zero-day malware protection in the marketplace that can stop any malware from attacking a system. It can protect any Windows operating system and constantly scans a computer for threats. To date, Higginbotham claims that there have been no recorded penetrations of AppGuard. Download a free 10-day trial of AppGuard or purchase the application for $29.95.

McCurley says none of these security tools is a silver bullet. But without these layers of protection, your computer will get infected, he says. Even if you upgrade to Windows 8.1, it's a good idea to download these anti-virus and anti-malware programs to protect your computer because malware is constantly being created and spread to infect machines.

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