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A Penguin in XP’s Clothing

With the retirement of support for Windows XP, a large number of users are left in the position to either upgrade their aging systems or exist in a security limbo, where they could be exploited quite badly at any moment.

Microsoft isn’t very subtle about it either, presenting this helpful “bubble” at stalwarts who persist in using the now retired OS in conjunction with MSE.

I have had anecdotal reports of users uninstalling MSE as a result, under the mistaken belief that the antivirus is out of date.

XP MSE Message

The MSE warning about XP being EOL

xp-xpired_msg

The EOL message about XP.

To try and ease users into this new Post-XP world, I installed an alternative Operating System on aging hardware, to address the inherent vulnerabilities of Windows XP, and then proceed to try and emulate the old OS with a custom theme, custom icons, and background.

For some people, the upgrade path isn’t possible. Maybe it is because of aging hardware or economic reasons, but some people just can’t.

Rest assured Malwarebytes will continue to offer support for XP, to assist users who find themselves in this unfortunate position.

Many readers of our blog are also the familial tech support, and trying to migrate grandma to Windows 8 might not only be an expensive affair but also a potentially traumatic experience. Windows 8 is proving to be …  challenging.

It has had a low adoption rates and the significant changes brought by the tile look to the user interface are not to everyone’s tastes.

Other Microsoft options are rapidly diminishing, most notably with Windows 7 no longer being available in retail form. So what are you left with if upgrading just isn’t an option?

Chart of the versions of windows available in retail.

Chart of the versions of windows available in retail. I was pondering this, when looking at options for a friend recently.

The minimum requirements for running Windows 7 and 8 include a 1 GHz or faster processor, 1 GB of RAM (2 GB for 64-bit), 16 GB of hard drive space (20GB for 64-bit), and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher.

However, just meeting those specs does not guarantee a good experience. The old adage, (slightly modified for computing): “lies, white lies, and minimum specs” definitely applies here. The specs in my case are a dual core T2060 @ 1.6 GHz , with a 533mhz fsb, 1 MB of L2 cache, integrated Intel video, a 160 GB 5400 rpm drive and 1 GB of memory.

Upgrading this laptop to Windows 7 would be possible, but I suspect the user experience would not be a particularly good one.

This machine originally came with Vista, but was almost unusable with that operating system and was downgraded to XP where it was blazing fast, at the time.

One of the zero cost solutions would be to install Linux. When I floated this as an option, I was initially met with a very “luke warm” reception.

The counter argument presented was that an old dog doesn’t learn new trick and that Linux, for all of it’s recent advances, is still jarring enough of a change to hurt it a viable alternative.

The pre-requisites I was asked to meet did make migrating somewhat difficult: no new hardware, minimum differences, safe for banking, low to zero budget… A cursory search on the internet revealed that there is a desktop theme for windows XP for Mint (a flavor of Ubuntu Linux) provided courtesy of noobslab and while you could in theory not inform the end-user of what you’ve done, in this case a little honesty might be a better policy.

And so, I embarked on my mission. I was going to roll out Mint, with the XP theme, and the Windows 7 icons, present it to the owner and see what reactions I received.

It isn’t super hard to do, but it does involve adding strange repositories, and the tutorials available neglect mentioning that you need to manually change the theme and icons after installing them. For someone who has never used Linux, even this might be challenging.

I made a complete backup, using imaging software, so that I could revert the system back to the exact state it was prior to this attempt.

I then did a second backup using a file copy utility called YCOPY, that will continue backing up the whole drive even if it hits a stubborn file, and generates a neat report of what it couldn’t copy when it is done.

I did this so that I could access the files without the need to extract them from the image, should I need them. I exported the address book, the email messages, the favorites, all of the documents, and the contents of the desktop.

Having procrastinated the inevitable with all these backups I then forged ahead, and blew away the contents of the drive, using g-parted live cd, a partition manipulation distribution of Linux. I do this to verify if there are hidden restore partitions on the disk, something fairly common on laptops.

Eventually, you have to pull the trigger.

Eventually, you have to pull the trigger.

I proceeded to install Mint, which was a fairly easy process. Once this was completed, I followed these steps to add the necessary theme and icons:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:noobslab/icons

sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get install win-icons

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:noobslab/themes

sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get install win-xp-theme

I then selected the “Win-XP-Theme” from the system settings and the “Win7-icons” from the Other Settings.

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After a little Google-ing, I was able to find a desktop background similar to the famed bliss backdrop that shipped with Windows XP to finish the look.

The results are a strange mish mash. A very XP looking desktop with just enough “weird” sprinkled throughout that I don’t think any long time XP user would be fooled. In this case we’re avoiding the landfill for an older machine and providing a respite while exploring other avenues.

If you’re interested the original how-to for the theme is here. The how-to for the icons is here.

Once I’ve deployed this machine, I will revisit the user experience periodically and report on whether this wolf in an endangered species clothing was a success or a failure.

@jean_taggart


  • Cedric Harris

    Is a virtual version of XP running on a Linux machine any safer?

    What XP programs work straightforwardly with no issues on Mint?

    Thanks for the great article!

  • Jean Taggart

    This is Linux, masquerading as XP, for familiarity. All the applications are native Linux equivalents, for example, Libre Office instead of Microsoft Office. As the primary user does most of his work via the web, I didn’t delve in Wine and virtualization, such as VirtualBox.

    A Virtualized instance of XP, contained inside of VirtualBox would still be safer than just using XP, such as in a dual boot config. I find that if the option is there, users will pick the most familiar of the two, thus defeating the purpose of this exercise…

    Will he eventually hit on a Microsoft specific application that has no Linux equivalent? Most probably. I’ll evaluate the options when I get to that hurdle.

  • glsmaxx

    Microsoft continues to strong arm people into doing things that are no where near customer friendly. First the Windows 8 roll out which to most certainly would not be viewed as a positive move. The XP thing is even worse to me. I would wager there are more people upset with them ditching the XP OS than are not happy with the Win8 experience and we all know Win 8 was Very much not well received.

    I am no computer whizz but I have been using them since about 1988. I have went through DOS, 3.0, 3.1, 95, all the way up to 8.1. I would say I have a basic knowledge of computers in general. I am on a Win 8 laptop now. I have gotten used to using it but have to admit through power shell mine looks and feels more like Win 7. I can and do run all Windows OSs.

    I have been learning the Linux distros. I have Lubuntu on an old HP desktop that I use mainly as a TV/movie computer. The Lubuntu machine runs well and does all I need and want for a computer that is connected to my TV. I have used Ubuntu, Lubuntu, and Mint18. I have dedicated many hours trying to get up to speed with Unix and had intended to run Mint16 on my main desktop. Mint is my favorite so far and I do not have many problems running it. The thing is even with my experience I still have a problem here and there with it. Linux just is not up to speed as an OS. They can say what they want..It just isn’t Windows. Linux is going to be very alien to most Windows users. People who have only ran Windows for years and have never had to troubleshoot, tweak, or get deep into things just aren’t going to be happy! Linux is just not as polished as Windows {I would simply LOVE to migrate away from Windows.} I will go ahead and say as much as Linux fans would love to be correct in saying Linux is just as good or better than Windows that is just NOT the fact. Users going from XP to Linux will sooner than later hit a wall and have to have help.

    I went ahead and ordered a Windows 7 disk as I would rather just turn my “souped up” {dual hard drives, updated graphics, upgraded RAM, etc.} desktop and use it than to have to go in and out of the Terminal, {which used it’s own commands, not even DOS commands} look for programs that emulate Windows programs, {usually much more complicated} and or figure out by Googling and spending time reading, etc. The average user just isn’t interested in all that EVEN if it can be made to look something like XP it will not run anything like it.

  • Jean Taggart

    Hello glsmaxx,

    I’m not going to even try and defend Windows 8. Microsoft’s abrupt 180, with the re-introduction of a “real” start menu is a pretty good indicator of the level of enthusiasm that their new interface has received. A stark example I recently saw was a fellow technologist, using the windows button + run, and manually entering .cpl files to invoke the various configuration windows, thus effectively bypassing the tile interface altogether… This speaks volumes.

    As I’m still at the deployment stage, it remains to be seen if, for my friends computing use, this solution will be adequate. At the very least it buys him some time, until he has to bite the bullet and buy a Windows 8.1.x, where the user interface has improved.

    I will append the post with results, after he’s had a chance to use the machine for a while.

  • glsmaxx

    Windows 8.1 with Power Shell is as close to 7 as can be. I haven’t seen tiles in months.

    I wasn’t trying to knock what you had done. I was just pointing out that Linux isn’t for someone who isn’t very computer savvy. For some reason it’s portrayed as such but it is not.

  • Debra Gerik

    And technology marches on. The quip about the traumatic experience for grandma is absolutely correct since I nearly had a nervous breakdown when I bought this laptop and it had Windows 8 installed. I must of cursed every curse every written and then some more I made up on the spur. The upside is I finally have gotten used to it but the dragging the window to close is especially annoying. What I would like to know is? What happened to “if it ain’t broke leave it the heck alone”! I always thought Improvement meant tweaking what’s already there, not changing the whole world and making an alien universe out of the sucker.

  • SysMelt

    I find this an interesting solution. Whilst I enjoy using different flavors of Linux to accomplish certain tasks (Ubuntu Server, Fedora Desktop) I understand that it’s not for everyone (Especially grandma’). To be honest though my primary solution would be to go out and buy a new, cheap, Windows 7 installed laptop, instead of moving around the elephant in the room. Will ol’ grandma have a fright? Most likely, but it’s similar enough to make the transition smooth.

  • https://www.facebook.com/rdavies1 Roger Davies

    I too have decided to move from Windows to Linux .. Ubuntu primarily, but several years ago now. Today all my computers now run Ubuntu or Mint (for the more under powered hardware-wise). My recommendation to friends and family on Windows XP is to go ahead and make the switch. Sure there may be some initial transition learning curve, but no more than switching to a newer Windows version and don’t forget the cost factor! Ubuntu is free to use, to install and distribute, runs on most hardware and includes tons of free open source software. Windows on the other hand is restrictive, expensive, bug ridden and susceptible to malware and myriad viruses. Did I mention expensive?

  • Pingback: A Week in Security (April 20 – 26) | Malwarebytes Unpacked

  • Jean Taggart

    Hi Guys (and gals)

    I’m going to reply to all, for the sake of expediency,

    glsmaxx:

    No offense taken, we’ll see how my friend reacts and I’ll add to the post, or even create a follow up post.

    Debra Gerik,

    I feel your pain, expect the start menu to return in some form in the near future. Looks like the groans from their user base have been loud enough for Richmond to notice.

    SysMelt

    I pushed hard for new hardware, but it just wasn’t in the cards (economic reasons). I did upgrade his desktop to 7 from an XP (upgrade!) And that was where all his budget went.

    Roger Davies

    I believe in multiple environments, my OSX for video editing, Android for mobile,
    a huge bunch of Linux boxes for research, Windows for work mail and games, sort of the right tool for the right job kinda thing. We’ll see how it goes.

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