Windows or Not?

The Quick Version

Only get Windows if you have to and you probably don't have to (even if you think you do). Why avoid it? Because that's where all the computer infections are and anti-virus software is not stopping it. The alternatives to Windows (and there are many) are much safer and in some cases cheaper too.

What next? Read Which Operating System?


Key Points

1. It's unwise to use Windows as a home computer because of all the Viruses and Junk Software.

2. Anti-virus software helps, but infections are still a huge problem affecting millions of people around the world.

3. There are now many good alternatives to Windows (it's not just Macs). All of them are much safer than Windows.

4. Most of the alternatives are cheaper than Windows.

5. You don't need Microsoft Office to create and edit Word, Excel & PowerPoint and to share them with your work and friends. There are other programs that do this.

6. Don't buy Windows because it's what you are used to. With Windows 8 onwards they changed it all.

7. You need to prioritise security and backups when replacing your home computer. That rules out Windows for most folks.

The Golden Rule

"Only get Windows if you have to and you probably don't have to (even if you think you do)."

It's not a snappy catch phrase, it's never going to make it as a song lyric and it's a bit negative in sentiment, but it sure seems to be the right approach for people buying home computers. 

The default is people think 'home computer' and they buy Windows, because that's what they've always done. For most people doing normal home things, it's the wrong decision and it's going to cause them pain and discomfort. It's such a problem, I have devoted this whole section to the simple question: Do you get Windows or not?

It used to be the case that if someone gave you that kind of "don't get Windows" advice it meant they were a Mac Fanboy (probably working in design, wearing a black polo-neck, driving a Saab, you know the type), but things have moved on. For most of the last 30 years, Windows and Mac were the only real choices for home computers. Now there are all sorts of things like iPads, Chromebooks, Android Tablets and even smartphones that people use as their main computers at home. There has been an explosion of choice and some of this stuff is absolutely superb.

Why Avoid Windows?

The killer reason is security. Every time you watch the news and you hear stories of millions of computers being infected, that's Windows. An enormous criminal industry has grown up attacking this one type of computer. These guys are making billions of dollars a year scamming normal folks trying to use a computer at home. Think your anti-virus is going to save you? The sad thing is, all those victims had anti-virus software as well. I saw a headline on the front page of a computer magazine and it simply said "Windows Security isn't working".  Sadly, they're right.

Of course there's no such thing as perfect security, but can I claim that the alternatives are thousands of times less likely to get infected (maybe hundreds of thousands of times, maybe even more)? Yes.  That's the sort of difference we're talking about, it really is dramatic. Read here for an explanation of why.

Although security is the killer reason to avoid Windows, there are two others:

Backups

Just in case you are too shy to ask what a backup is (that happens more than you might think) it means a second copy of your information. Imagine you had a filing cabinet full of all your stuff (photos, bills, etc) and every time you put more stuff into the cabinet a gang of invisible magic elves took a copy and duplicated them to a spare filing cabinet over at your mom's house. What's more, if something bad happened to your filing cabinet (it burnt down, was eaten by a troll etc) the elves would copy everything back from the spare. I might have left out a few of the technical details here, but in essence that's how modern automatic backups work. You put some photos from your camera onto your computer and quick as a flash a copy of it is sitting in an encrypted vault at Microsoft, Google or somewhere similar. Then when your computer dies (and it will die, all things are mortal), everything is safe and sound elsewhere ready to be copied onto your new computer. It's marvellous.

The trouble is, Windows does not automatically do this (the alternatives mostly do). So when you have a disaster you will lose the family photo collection, all your business records, your coursework, your music, that unfinished romantic novel you're working on (we are all dying to hear if she gets him by the way). To be fair to Windows you can add such automatic backups and people always mean to get around to doing so, but they don't. So the second most common call we get in the workshop is from people having lost all their files. Not because they lacked a way to back them up, they all have external hard drives and memory sticks that their brother-in-law told them to get, they just forgot to use them, or got them stolen along with the PC, or they only stored their files on the external drive instead of storing a copy on the internal drive and another on the external drive (it's not a backup if it's only in one place, even if you call the one place a backup drive, honestly it doesn't count!). File loss is as much of a plague as the infection is.

Cost

It used to be the case that the only alternative to Windows was Mac and that was double the price. Now there are things like Chromebooks at half the price of a Windows Laptop and some tablets at half the price of a Chromebook.

Are you still sure you want Windows?

Why get Windows?

The killer reason to get Windows (even despite the security problems) is if you have some software or hardware that you simply have to run and it only works on Windows. That's actually very common when using a PC in a company. They often have had software specially written to run some aspect of their business and it only runs on Windows.

Of course these pages are not about what's right for businesses, this is all about the home market. In the home market it's actually quite rare to find a piece of software that people simply "have" to run. Having said that there are plenty of pieces of software that people think they have to run, but that's down to a simple misunderstanding. The classic one is Microsoft Office (Word, Excel etc). A man walks into a shop and asks the assistant "Can this tablet run Microsoft Word?", the assistant says "No". The man then buys a Windows Laptop and within a week it's infected with a bunch of nasties (don't tell me that doesn't happen, we get plenty in the workshop that don't last 24 hours, let alone a week). The assistant is happy because he makes more commission on the laptop than the tablet. 

Here's how it should have gone: A man walks into a shop and asks "Can this tablet create and edit Word and Excel files?". Assistant says "Yes, there are various apps in the appstore for doing that sort of thing. They are either free or don't cost too much. Try a few and see which one you like best.", and they all live happily ever after.

The misunderstanding is confusing the program (Microsoft Word) with the file format (.docx). People are used to separating those two things with photos. You have photos on your computer (often .jpg format) and you can use all sorts of programs to access them, edit them, email them, print them, all sorts. You don't have to have a piece of software from "Jpg Incorporated" (if such a company even existed) to do something with the photos. It's getting that way with the Word and Excel files. Even your smartphone can access and edit an Excel spreadsheet with the right app (it's just a bit fiddly to do your edits because of the screen size, but it can do it) and Microsoft need never have written a program to allow it. So be very cautious of people who say of any type of computer "But it doesn't run Microsoft Word", they could just be missing the point.

One more example to prove the point whilst I'm on a roll: A surprising number of people say to me they have to have Family Tree Maker software, which is only on Windows. Therefore they have to have Windows and hang the security problems. This is because they have spent a gazillion hours collecting names and dates and feeding them into the Family Tree package (I can't get the enthusiasm myself). What they actually mean is they want to keep their records, not the software that displays it. These days you can load genealogical records into the ancestry.com website and access it on anything. Or use the GEDCOM file format to move data from one genealogical program to another. You don't need the specific Family Tree Maker program that only runs on Windows. You need the data.

If you can transfer the data to the platform you want, you are unshackled from Windows. Hence the mantra:

"Only get Windows if you have to and you probably don't have to (even if you think you do)."

Windows is not Windows any more

The other reason people chose Windows is familiarity. It's been around long enough that many people have hardly ever used a different type of computer. How scary to try something completely new. Of course people are trying new things all the time with their smartphones and tablets, but those are not computers are they.......?

Of course they're computers, you might not call them that, but they are every bit a computer, capable of doing all the same things your Windows machine does. And most people not only adapt to these new machines, they love 'em.

Here's the thing: Windows is something completely new. If you think you know Windows, expect to be in for a big surprise when you sit down with Windows 8 and 8.1. They've changed it all! It might have the same name on the packet, but it's not what you would call Windows.

All versions of Windows from the ancient version 1 your grandfather used in 1985 right up to Windows 7 (2009 to present) looked like they came from the same family of stuff. Then in 2012, Windows 8 hit and they changed it all around. It's not like Microsoft did this just for laughs (although some have speculated). They did it because they are well aware of the trends I am writing about in these pages. They saw the rise of tablets and how it was killing their own sales, so they created a new Windows that would be good to run on a tablet. Unfortunately in doing so they created something that was a dog's breakfast when used with a mouse and keyboard. People hated it. Don't take my word for it. Ask your friends and then stand back for the vitriol if they have Windows 8.

The take up rate of Windows 8 in businesses has been near zero. That's interesting because these are the people who have a choice. If you go into a shop they will sell you Windows 8 and tell you that's your only option (which is a big fat fib, but that's another story). Businesses can choose. They all just ignored Windows 8 and carried on with Windows 7. If you ask in the shops about this they will say it's all much better with Windows 8.1 (because that's all they have to sell you). It's true, it is a little better (but businesses are still ignoring it). Why is it a little better? Because they've moved it a little closer to how it was in Windows 7. Look at the plans for what Microsoft are doing with Windows 10 and it's moving it back closer still to Windows 7. They really did mess this up that badly. You think Windows Vista was unpopular, Windows 8 has set new standards of loathing.

Whilst I am on a roll having a rant about this... the next version of Windows, surely they will fix it in that? Actually yes, they are having a damn good go at making it all better. Know what they are calling it? Windows 10. Notice there is no Windows 9 and never will be. Why the skip? Because the marketing folks at Microsoft know that Windows 8 is so detested and has such a bad reputation that they had to distance themselves from it by skipping a version number. Wow. For once even I'm lost for words. Anyway, no point worrying about Windows 10, it's not due out until the middle of 2015 and even then the security and backup problems will be just the same as they are now.

A trend we see in people's homes is that they buy Windows 8.1 machines and then don't use them much. They find excuses to read their email and surf the internet on their phones and tablets and only use Windows 8.1 when they have to. We're seeing laptops that haven't been switched on for months. The same trend is there on our websites. The logs tell us what type of computer is reading our webpages. Windows 8 and 8.1 barely registers, no matter how many have been sold. Other folks with websites report exactly the same.

If you are used to previous versions of Windows you will probably find the user interface of Chrome OS or a Mac is more familiar than Windows 8 and 8.1. 

The other big change is in Microsoft Office (that's the umbrella name for Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc). Depending on what version of Office you are coming from, you could be in for a surprise in how much it has changed. All versions of Microsoft Office up to and including 2003 had a particular style and layout to them. The next version after that (2007) and all subsequent ones had a radical redesign. If you buy Microsoft Office because you are familiar with the older versions, expect to be spending a fair amount of time finding out where everything is. It's not that they have really screwed it up (like they did with Windows 8), it's actually quite good, it's just different.

Products like Google Docs and Libre Office (both free products) are closer to what many people are used to in the mouse and keyboard environment.

So don't assume that by buying Windows you are going to get a system that is familiar. Whichever way you turn you will be faced with change, so why not put aside the past and find the best option for you going forward?

How do you choose?

Whenever you purchase anything, you weigh up unconnected advantages and figure out what you think you want to buy. You might optimise for price (buy the cheapest), or performance (buy the fastest), or appearance (buy the sexiest looking), or seduction (which will make me most attractive to hot people). The problem I see with people buying home computers is they give far too much weight to the wrong criteria. They buy Windows because of a) habit and b) it doesn't close off any options and c) it's cheap. I say that's ignoring the two enormous pink elephants with green poker-dots in the room: security and backups. 

Think of it like this: Instead of a car you decide to drive around in a 50 seater coach, just in case one day your daughter gets married and you need to ferry the guests around. For years either side of the big day you will be paying more in fuel, insurance, servicing and have nowhere to park. Clearly this is daft, this is optimising your purchasing of personal transportation on the wrong criteria. You are placing your bets on something that might happen and in the process messing up your experience for the things you want to do on a daily basis.

Remember what I do for a day job: I run a company focused on helping people with their computers in the home market. I see the consequence of people choosing Windows all the time. Two things keep happening: people's Windows computers get trashed by Viruses and Junk Software and people lose files that are precious to them because of a lack of backups. That's just not happening on the alternatives. 

I say whatever you buy, put security and backups at the top of your priority list (closely followed by seduction naturally). If a system does not have good answers for these two things, bin it.  Of course the one exception is if you have a piece of software that you absolutely have to have that only runs on Windows (post a question in the Forums here before deciding that's the case, there might be perfectly good alternatives you don't yet know about). Just make sure you read my article on how to lock down Windows, but don't assume that's any substitute for buying a secure system in the first place.

For some people, buying Windows is the correct answer. If, for example, you are a technology enthusiast who has to have all the latest gadgets, the thought of not being able to update the software in the latest combined talking vacuum cleaner and waffle maker would be a nightmare that would keep you up at night. The problem is, many such folks will automatically recommend what is right for themselves to everyone else as well.

Summary

My word, that was an awful lot of text to devote to the simple question of if you should get Windows or not. I think it was worth it. Simply because buying Windows is the default thing that people do, even when it's not in their best interests. I see the results of that all the time and it's not nice. Take time to look at the alternatives, you might be pleasantly surprised, you will certainly be safer.

Next Step?

Read What Shape? Then What Operating System?


But this is all Nonsense!

The slaying of myths and misunderstandings

There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.

Neil obviously just hates Windows!

It would be easy to read the text above and assume I have some personal vendetta against Windows. That's not it, it's more nuanced than that. For the record, my favourite user interface for a keyboard and mouse system is Windows 7 (not Windows 8, that's a dog's breakfast and universally hated, although it can be greatly improved with Start8 and ModernMix from Stardock if you are already stuck with it). But of course I'm super careful about what I install on Windows, use it in a very locked down way, have spent the last 38 years doing this all day every day learning exactly how to do this stuff safely (and it's just one of the types of computers I use).

Where I am coming from is that I have spent the last 10 years trying to keep normal folks safe from computer crime as they use a computer at home. It's like we are trying to cross a chasm with a vicious rapid at the bottom. Windows is the rope bridge taking us across. I am a guide showing people where it's safe to tread and lashing in new bits of rope to hold things together. I get most of them across, but some fall because they don't listen, some fall just because it's a wobbly old bridge with so many gaps. Many try to get across without a guide (most of them fall).

All the time I have been doing this, various builders have been constructing other bridges across the chasm, using modern materials like steel and carbon fibre. They don't always carry all the same traffic the old rope bridge does, and people don't use them because they are familiar with the old ways, but no one falls off the new bridges. One day I woke up and thought "What the hell am I doing pouring all this effort into protecting the old ways? Why don't I just help people find a safer bridge?"

So, no, I don't hate Windows. I hate the scumbag criminals who will encrypt the first 5 years of a baby's photos and demand a ransom of the mother to get them back (yes that is a real life example from my day job). It particularly hurts because I know about about how these things work and know that it simply doesn't have to be that way. The technology is capable of eliminating this problem and I want to be part of the solution.

Of course I should point out that the question of what type of computer you should use has become ridiculously tribal. If I object to something in how Windows works, there is a large group of people (us geeks call them fanboys, and yes, that word is an insult) who will assume that means I am a fanboy for Macs. Equally, say something negative about the Mac, that tribe will then get all very over excited and condemn everything I say, not just on that topic, but on everything I have ever said on any topic (honestly, fanboys really are that stupid. If you have not come across fanboys you really should read my article on the subject, it will help you understand a lot of the comments you read on the Internet, not just on this subject, but on all sorts of things on all sorts of pages). You can see those types of tribes starting to form around the new platforms, people who would only ever use an iPhone, others who think that's heresy and would only use an Android device.

Of course serious geeks don't think that way. We use all the different systems and enjoy what's good about each one in turn. If something is good, we say so, if something is bad, we say so again. Windows has much that is good about it, but giving it to normal folks to play with in the home is like giving a small child an open bottle of bleach and hoping everything will be ok.

But my work PC is not infected and that runs Windows!

This is such a popular misconception I wrote an article just on this topic. Have a read of Business PCs to understand why the lessons you learnt from your work PC tell you nothing about the security of your home PC.

I promise I will be good and do my backups!

People always tell me how they are going to be good and backup regularly. They never do. Actually I say that, but I have had a couple of clients (and only a couple) who are old soldiers, very disciplined, make lots of lists and stick to them, that sort of thing. They do their backups at the appointed hour each week and would repeat this until the end of time or until they received an order to stop.

However, this is not normal (by the way, one of the old soldiers was backing up shortcuts to his data, rather than the actual data. Boy it was quick. Completely useless, but really quick). What happens all the time is someone who "knows about computers" gives the person a memory stick or an external hard drive and tells them how to back up. Person backups up the first time, maybe even the second and then never gets around to it ever again. Barely a day goes by when we don't get a call where this has happened. The latest one on my call sheet was yesterday. Computer stopped switching on, we were called in, checked the backup drive and it had not been done for 14 months and that's not any kind of a record, it's normal. Also the drive had tens of thousands of photos on it and was stored next to the PC. If there had been a burglary both the PC and the drive would have been stolen and all that would have been lost forever. You're not going to believe this, but it's true, as I was writing these words I was interrupted by a call from a customer. The daughter had moved all her photos to an external drive to make space on a computer, now when she plugs the drive in it is asking if she wants to format it (the files have all gone). That will be coming into the workshop to see what we can recover. Like I say, there is a plague of data lost out there, we get these calls every day. OK, this is getting weird now. I just finished writing that bit in my study and my wife asked me to go to the kitchen where the man fitting the new dishwasher has a problem with his laptop. So I did and his laptop has died and he had not backed up to his external drive in many months. They just keep on coming. Now I'm re-reading this a week later and on the screen to my left is a recovery I am working on where the husband has put a vast collection of photos on a NAS drive. He thought he was bullet proof because the drives were mirrored. Oh boy, his wife is going to kill him if I can't get this back! (I have to stop updating this now or this paragraph is never going to end).

Although these pieces of technology are perfectly good they hit up against human nature and human nature always wins. There is always something more interesting or important to do than backup the computer, so it doesn't get done. Where I see people recover their data in a disaster is when they have automatic online backups. You can do that on Windows (I recommend www.carbonite.com), but the other systems have this built in and give you a generous amount of storage for free.

But I don't want my backups in the cloud!

It has become far less of an objection that it used to be, but some people still don't like the idea of their data being out there on some company's machine. It's the old relative risk thing again. You are 800 times more likely to die driving to the airport than you are to die in a plane crash, but people are still afraid of flying. The chances of your losing data if you keep it all locally and rely on manual backups are huge. The chances of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple or similar breaking encryption so they can look at your grandmothers' 80th birthday party pictures (and put up with all the bad publicity that generates) are vanishingly small. 

The world is moving towards cloud services because they solve problems. The use of this stuff is exploding. If you try and keep all of your backups locally not only will Google not be able to see your files, you won't either because you will have lost them just like so many of the folks who have that tried this before you.

It's cheaper to backup locally!

I do get people who "know about computers" saying "online backup is expensive because you have to pay each year. Memory sticks are cheap and once you have bought them there is no further expense". To which I say: what good is cheap if it doesn't do the job? The memory stick is theoretically a good way to back up, but as we have already established, it just doesn't work. That's a serious issue as people put more and more important things on their computers.

The backup services that are built into the alternatives (Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Apple iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive) all give you a generous amount of space for free on their service and then charge not much for more space. The only service I have mentioned that can be a bit pricey is Carbonite, but you only need that on Windows and Mac and they do offer unlimited space for one flat fee, which is great if you have a lot of data.

Price stopped being a valid objection a long time ago.

After Windows 8, Windows just keeps getting better!

That is true.  With every release of Windows after the road crash that was Windows 8, it has gotten better. But the area it has got better in is the user interface. Microsoft (the authors of Windows) have done nothing to improve security and backups and unfortunately, they have painted themselves into a corner which means they will never be able to fix them.  


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