On the surface, it seems that Windows 7 or 8 are the obvious choices to replace XP systems simply because of the technologies, behaviour, and application compatibility you'll carry forward, but there's more to consider about other systems and your own needs.
Staying with Windows XP
First of all, if you use Windows, you'll always be a target of malware — one day Windows 7 and 8, along with Android and Mac OS X, will be similarly targeted because malware creators are looking for the best return on their investment, just like you are.
Second of all, the end of Windows XP support doesn't mean your computer will explode. But if any new bugs for XP come out after April 2014, you're on your own. According to a report by the Information Systems Security Associations, 38 percent of computers still use Windows XP.
Association chapter president Stan Stahl claims cybercriminals are saving up Windows XP holes to exploit after it knows Windows won't fix them, leaving you more vulnerable.
"Lots of computers are going to get hit with viruses in those months after," said Jeff Bolden, managing partner of data conversation and system integration provider Blue Lotus SIDC.
Fujitsu North America's senior director of end-user services Nicholas Lee agrees, saying that eventually, Windows XP will be "infected or otherwise impacted, and the cost to [fix] issues will be far more costly and detrimental".
Threats communications manger at Trend Micro Christopher Budd went further. "It really is best for people to be off of Windows XP by April 2014," he said. "Even if it means you turn off your computer and don't use another until you get a new one."
Still, some users might have old peripherals or software they can't upgrade and can't do without because of a discontinued product line or a long-gone developer. The best approach is to use your XP system as a stand-alone base of operations for that process and nothing else. Unplug it from the internet and lock it down so it stays that way. Move data on or off it using an external disk or CD, and start looking seriously for another workflow to replace the tool you think you can't do without.
The systems gulf
Getting used to a new system is a cost just as much as buying it, according to technical director of IT provider Akita Adrian Case.
"If you're going to migrate to Windows 7, there'll be a shallow learning curve, but if you adopt Windows 8, that curve is steeper while you grapple with the new user interface," he said.
Application compatibility is another big deal. You'll have fewer issues moving from XP to Windows 7 than if you went from XP to Windows 8. Windows XP applications worked in Windows 7 thanks to compatibility technology, but moving to Windows 8 will mean more time testing.
It's not as big a problem as it seems — the days where UNIX ran databases, Macs did graphics software, and Windows ran office productivity tools are far behind us. Speaking of which, the users of Mac, Linux, and other systems will talk up their relative benefits all day long, but, as Budd explained, the real weak link won't be computer based.
"The biggest downside, especially for non-technical people, is that real security is directly related to how familiar you are with what you're using," he said.
Plus, other systems come with different costs. Despite being an OSX user himself, Bolden said Apple's faster upgrade cycle and more expensive hardware can be prohibitive. "The kind of person on XP at the end of 2013 will find Apple's much more rapid forced upgrades vastly less pleasant," he said.
And while Linux is of course free, the time taken to learn a whole new system and new applications, very few of which are found in the commercial software world, certainly won't be.
If you're committed to staying in the Windows world because of software requirements or just sticking with what you know, Windows 7 looks and behaves like Windows XP and it's also cheaper.
Again, Microsoft's advice is to go to Windows 8, pointing out that Windows 7 is already four-year-old technology. If your hardware's also that old, you can't take advantage of the latest that computing can offer, and Windows 8 is more closely stitched to the hardware it runs on when it comes to security and performance.
But Fujitsu North America's senior director of end-user services, Nicholas Lee, said you shouldn't overlook Windows 7 just yet.
"Windows 8 is good, but it's not for everyone," he said. "Enterprises are more stable today and will find more interoperability on Windows 7."
Depending on your level of tech expertise, sticking with Windows will reduce the compatibility and re-skilling burden. You certainly won't be left behind moving to Windows 7 rather than Windows 8, so here's our advice.
Dip your toe in the water of Windows 8 and use it on non-essential systems for non-essential tasks. Get a feel for it at your own pace, and when Microsoft stops Windows 7 support or you find you really need a Windows 8-only application, you'll be ready.