A woman sitting at a computer.

Over the next few weeks, millions of PC users will receive pop-up messages from Microsoft informing them that the Windows 7 operating system will reach the end of its life in January 2020.

After that, consumers will no longer receive updates of any kind, including critical security patches, for the nearly 10-year-old platform—potentially putting their computers at increased risk for viruses and other forms of malware.

“By starting the reminders now, our hope is that you have time to plan and prepare for this transition,” wrote Matt Barlow, corporate vice president, Windows, in a recent blog post. Microsoft recommends that consumers move to Windows 10, which it claims is the most secure version of the operating system ever developed. 

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You might have these questions about the transition to Windows 10:
• How much it will cost to move from Windows 7 to Windows 10? (Answer: It depends.)
• Is it worth the risk to stick with Windows 7? (Answer: Probably not.)
• What role, if any, does antivirus software play in all of this? (Answer: A small one.)

This is a big issue—nearly 27 percent of all Windows users in the U.S. are still running Windows 7, according to StatCounter. So it’s important to understand the pros and cons of the shift well before the January 2020 cutoff. 

Why Is Support for Windows 7 Ending?

Supporting the software behind an outdated operating system has become too costly, even for a company as large and rich as Microsoft.

Operating systems require "constant maintenance,” says Bogdan Botezatu, director of threat research and reporting at the Bitdefender cybersecurity firm. “It’s difficult to maintain code from several years ago while at the same time trying to maintain code for the latest operating system. Companies will do everything in their power to try to migrate customers to the new version.”

To Microsoft’s credit, this cutoff date for Windows 7 support was announced alongside the release of the operating system in October 2009.

Microsoft also points out that the 10-year life span for Windows 7 is longer than what's offered by its competitors.

For instance, the oldest operating system to receive updates from Apple this year is macOS Sierra, released in 2016. It's worth noting that macOS upgrades are free so long as your hardware is compatible. (Mojave, the latest version of Apple's operating system, supports laptops released as far back as 2012.)

The ultimate goal for Microsoft is to commit fewer resources to Windows 7 and focus more on making Windows 10 (released in 2015) as secure as possible against today’s threats.

“We’d still be supporting DOS if we never dropped support for an operating system,” says Kevin Haley, director of security response for Norton LifeLock, the Symantec-owned cybersecurity company. 

What Does 'End of Support' Actually Mean?

Once support for Windows 7 ends, Microsoft will no longer produce updates for the operating system. That means you won't receive new features, such as, say, a faster search bar or improvements to Microsoft’s Alexa-like digital assistant Cortana. But more to the point, it means you'll be cut off from security updates, which puts you and your data at greater risk.

“When someone is using an outdated version of the operating system, this increases their risk of being attacked through an exploit: a program, piece of code, or even some data designed to take advantage of a bug in an application,” says Vyacheslav Zakorzhevsky, head of anti-malware research at the Kaspersky Lab cybersecurity firm. “Whenever a new vulnerability is discovered, the operating system vendor usually delivers security patches only to the supported versions.”

And so, come January, Windows 8.1 and 10 will be the only versions supported by Microsoft. If your laptop runs Windows 8.1  (a free upgrade from Windows 8), you’ll continue to get updates until January 2023. Windows 10 users should receive at least six more years of support, based on Microsoft’s history.

And while anti-virus software can protect you from malicious software, a Microsoft spokesperson says it may still leave you vulnerable to “sophisticated attacks like phishing and ransomware” if your operating system no longer receives updates.

“That’s the risk," says Hale of Norton LifeLock. Because there's no knowing how a virus or malware will interact with an operating system, there's no guarantee an outside security company can fully defend you against it.

Will Your Computer Continue to Function?

Yes, once Microsoft withdraws support, your Windows 7 laptop will continue to operate largely as it does today. You can browse the web with Google Chrome and create and edit documents in Microsoft Word or Excel. Your printer won’t suddenly stop working. In fact, not much of your day-to-day computing will change.

“Windows 7 will still work just fine,” says Adam Kujawa, director of Malwarebytes Labs, the research and development division of the Malwarebytes cybersecurity company. “I mean, I can still use Windows XP on a system and it’ll still work just fine.” (Microsoft ended support for Windows XP in 2014.)

But just because your laptop will power on and let you print your child’s book report doesn’t mean that’s a smart move.

Ideally, you should be getting ready to move to Windows 10. 

How Do You Move to Windows 10?

You can download Windows 10 from the Microsoft website or buy the software on a thumb drive from a retailer such as Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart. Either way, the upgrade will cost you $140.

The installation is fairly simple. Using the detailed instructions provided by Microsoft, you reboot your PC and follow the on-screen prompts. The process takes about an hour depending on the age of your computer, the company says.

Before you begin that process, though, be sure to perform a backup, preserving the contents of your computer on an external drive or in cloud storage just to be safe.

You'll need at least 8GB of free space to download Windows 10 from Microsoft. You might consider loading the software onto a blank DVD or a USB thumb drive to start.

Microsoft also recommends that you consider buying a new PC. While clearly a more expensive proposition, a new computer will be faster and more secure, according to a Microsoft spokesperson. It might even have a fingerprint reader and webcam that you can use to log into Windows, security features that were rare just five years ago.

And a computer like that is less expensive than you might think. You can find laptops from well-known companies such as Asus and HP in our ratings for less than $500. You can even find a few good options for less than $300.

They might not be powerful enough for gaming and video editing, but if you’re looking for a Windows 10 laptop that lets you safely browse the web, watch a few video clips, and balance the family budget in Excel, then they’ll do nicely.