With about three months to go, the "Best if used by" shelf date for Windows XP is almost upon us. If you are still using PCs with XP, if you haven't by now completely converted your work and home PCs, I'd have to say there is good chance you'll still be using them come May even though reports show an acceleration in those abandoning XP. If you're still hanging on to XP, there are some things you need to do to protect yourself as best you can.
One reminder: This is about Microsoft ending support for Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. It means that there will be no further updates, most importantly security updates, for either of these products. If the bad guys figure out yet another way to compromise XP, Microsoft won't be doing anything about it.
Here's what you can do.
First and foremost, make sure you have your PC set to install automatic updates or make sure you manually get updates right up until the bitter end. This assures that you'll have whatever Microsoft does take care of before it stops.
Microsoft's official position about browsers is that it provides browser updates for two versions of Windows - the current version and the immediate predecessor, one version back. XP is now three versions back and the latest version of IE available for it is IE8. It won't be getting any updates, either.
If you are using IE with XP I suggest that you switch to Firefox (recommended), Chrome, Opera, or Safari. Even as you make that switch, make a mental note to keep tabs on your chosen browser so you find out quickly if any of those vendors withdraws support for XP. Initially, I expect all the other vendors to capitalize on the absence of the most recent Microsoft browser on XP, but you must assume that they will all eventually follow suit. (Once all the vendors dump XP, you won't have any choice - you can't stay safe and only Windows 7/8 will solve the problem).
After you choose one of the other browsers and make it your default, you'll still need IE to handle some Microsoft interactions. Don't try to uninstall or delete IE; just use another browser for your routine Internet tasks and, when Microsoft requires it, use IE.
The Web is dangerous threat vector and your browser is the portal. Don't ignore this advice - get another browser.
Microsoft is also ending availability of Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) for XP on the same date XP itself expires. You'll need to obtain a different anti-virus product for which its vendor says XP support will continue. I don't have a specific recommendation for you here; my recent experience says that most AV products except MSE are performance hogs. Expect your PC to take a hit as a result. Not that you have any choice, of course.
Are you using XP without user accounts and passwords? If you have user accounts, are they set to Administrator?
This is an easy adjustment you can and must make immediately. Lock down your PC by creating at least one account that is the administrator and then making all other accounts regular user accounts. Give every user account a password. Don't use the administrative accounts unless absolutely necessary and try to limit Web browsing while using them. Don't give your kids the admin password.
Many threats to your PC succeed because they find that they are able to run with administrative rights and thus have their way with your PC. Yes, there is inconvenience in making the PC's users log in every time, but that sure beats having the machine turned into a brick.
New Version of Windows
If your PC is not terribly old and seems to meet the requirements for Windows 7, consider upgrading Windows. Windows 7 will be available for a bit more time, probably through the end of the first quarter of 2014. After that you will be in Windows 8 land.
The bad news is that you cannot install Win 7 or 8 as an upgrade over Windows XP. You have to do a clean install, which means taking steps to protect all your data and making sure you have the assets necessary to re-install all your important applications. Microsoft has some tools (search for Windows Easy Transfer or Windows Migration Assistant) that might apply to your situation.
Even if one of the Microsoft tools can help, I recommend investing in a new hard disk, keeping the old disk as an ultimate backup of the state of your Windows XP system when you upgraded. I suggest this because you have to install on a clean disk anyway, so why not make it a brand new one and keep the old disk as is? Another benefit is the ability to plug the old disk in and boot Windows XP, perhaps to recover something you can't otherwise find or to locate a product key for a product you're trying to reinstall. I recommend that hard disks be replaced every five years to minimize the chance of failure; you're killing two birds with one stone this way.
The cheapest way to get a new version of Windows is with a new PC. If your XP PC is older, it's time to take the plunge. A key benefit is the ability to run both computers side-by-side until your migration is complete.
If you've arrived at this point and are still running XP, it's time to slough off that procrastination and take serious action. I think you'll be happy you finally made the switch. I know you'll be safer.