Windows 7 is one of the best things Microsoft ever released. The much-adored operating system wooed back users who reviled the disappointing Windows Vista, and it remained a comfortable refuge during the even bleaker Windows 8 era.
Even today, with Windows 10 fixing Windows 8’s worst mistakes and standing as a superb desktop operating system of its own, a legion of vocal PC enthusiasts swears by Windows 7. Why? Because it stays out of your way, and it just works.
Until today. On January 14, 2020, Microsoft ends Windows 7’s extended support. Windows 7 is dead.
Your PC will keep operating, of course. Microsoft isn’t literally pulling the plug on your devices. But Windows 7 won’t receive any more updates or security patches, meaning your PC will also be very vulnerable to all those nasty malware programs garnering headlines seemingly every day. If you keep using Windows 7—and over a quarter of all computers run it, per NetMarketShare—you’re on your own, and the Internet can get nasty.
We can help you stay as safe as possible, though.
Sticking with Windows 7 is not an option
Seriously: Switch away from Windows 7 by whatever means necessary. That’s our underlying recommendation. Sticking with Windows 7 was understandable before; now it’s a liability. With no security updates and a still-vast market share, Microsoft’s operating system will be a big, juicy target for hackers.
We recommend migrating to Windows 10 if you’re able to, and have a guide explaining your Windows 10 upgrade options. If you perform only basic tasks on your PC—email, web surfing, and documents—then Linux is a viable, user-friendly option these days. We’ve got a Linux beginner’s guide, too, and better yet you can try it for free with no risk to your main Windows 7 installation. You can probably still upgrade to Windows 10 for free, too.
But if you need to bide some time before making a switch, here’s how to keep Windows 7 as safe as possible.
Don’t use Internet Explorer
A lot of malware gets delivered via browser vulnerabilities, and a lot of those will be aimed at Windows 7 now that it’s wide open to attack. Microsoft’s ending support for Internet Explorer too, and you definitely don’t want to run an unsecured browser on an unsecured operating system.
The other top browser vendors will continue to support Windows 7, however. Google’s Chrome is popular, but Opera beat it out in our best web browser comparison, and Firefox is great, too (remember to update Firefox to avoid a recently revealed vulnerability). Switch to one of those—any will do, honestly—and make sure to enable automatic updates to keep those hatches battened down. This should be a top priority.
Choose your software wisely
That segues to a key point: Make sure the software you’re using still supports Windows 7, so that any potential security holes still get patched.
After browser vulnerabilities, poisoned Office documents are another frequent attack vector. If you’re still using Office 2007, stop—its support ended years ago. Office 2010 will continue to receive security updates through October 13, so you have a little time there. Microsoft will actually continue to support Office 2010 for the next three years (until January, 2023) if you subscribe to Office 365. If that’s not in your budget, check out our list of the best free Microsoft Office alternatives for other no-cost options, such as LibreOffice and Google Docs.
Java, Flash, and Adobe Reader are commonly targeted as well, so make sure they’re up to date if you need them. You might not, though. I was able to live my online life surprisingly well without them seven long years ago, and it’s even easier today, though it’s hard to replace some of the meatier features in Reader. Kick Flash and Java to the curb and only install them if needed. They’re in their twilight years.
Audit all your installed software, including browser plug-ins. If you don’t use it, ditch it. Many standalone programs offer an option to update automatically to newer versions as they’re pushed out. Activate it.
Install antivirus software
The free antivirus that Microsoft offers for Windows users works great for most users, but it won’t receive updates now that Windows 7 is end-of-life. Yes, Windows Security Essentials is dead too. Now that your operating system won’t receive security patches it’s even more crucial to run protection on your PC. That expired version of McAfee that came with your computer isn’t going to cut it.