If you intend to use Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 in the foreseeable future, you should know that Microsoft plans to make it harder for you.
If you’ve got a current generation Intel Skylake processor, they’re going to stop issuing security updates for these older supported versions of Windows in about eighteen months. Furthermore, Microsoft is refusing to support anything less than Windows 10 on Intel’s upcoming Kaby Lake processors, period.
Despite the inevitable outpouring of grief and anger, this is actually a really good move for Microsoft, and an even better move for consumers. It will increase security, and ensure that older versions of Windows are put to pasture when they really ought to. Here’s what you need to know.
Windows 10 and Intel’s Kaby Lake Processors
Technically speaking, Intel’s new Kaby Lake processors are remarkable leaps forward, and represent a significant advancement on earlier Intel chips. The fabrication process has improved to the point where each transistor measures around 14 nano meters, allowing more of them to fit on a single piece of silicon wafer, while simultaneously consuming less power.
Kaby Lake is better equipped to handle 4K video, and has more resources allocated to 3D graphics than earlier Intel processors. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Ever since the Intel Core 2 architecture was first released, Intel has been determined to improve the graphics performance on their chips in order to compete with AMD and NVIDIA.
Connectivity is given a boost in Kaby Lake. The chips will support the new Thunderbolt 3 standard, as well as USB 3.1. Thunderbolt 3 consumes half the power of its predecessor, uses USB Type-C connections, and has enough bandwidth to power two 4K displays, while USB 3.1 is similarly souped-up, and is able to transmit almost 10 GB of data per second, while remaining backwards compatible with previous USB standards.
But perhaps the most controversial feature of these chips is one we mentioned at the start of this article: namely that previous versions of Windows will not be supported on this chipset. No matter whether you’re a home-builder or an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), you’ll have to use Windows 10, otherwise you won’t receive security updates or patches.
This will undoubtedly earn the ire of users, but there’s a really good reason for it. In an official blogpost called “Windows 10 Embracing Silicon Innovation”, they attributed this to the immense difficulty in ensuring older versions of Windows are able to use the features of these chips:
“Windows 7 was designed nearly 10 years ago before any x86/x64 SOCs existed. For Windows 7 to run on any modern silicon, device drivers and firmware need to emulate Windows 7’s expectations for interrupt processing, bus support, and power states, which is challenging for WiFi, graphics, security, and more. As partners make customizations to legacy device drivers, services, and firmware settings, customers are likely to see regressions with Windows 7 ongoing servicing.”
Before you take to Twitter and start bombarding Intel with angry messages, it’s worth pointing out that they’re not alone in this. Both AMD (remember them?) and Qualcomm have stated that their next-generation chips will be Windows 10 exclusives. These are the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 MS8996, and AMD’s Bristol Ridge APU (Accelerated Processing Unit), which is scheduled to be released later this year.
But My Current Computer Is Fine, Right?
Your ability to use Windows 7 and 8.1 on your existing machine depends on what kind of processor you’ve got. If your computer isn’t cutting edge, you’re probably fine. But if you’re using Intel’s latest-and-greatest Skylake processors, Microsoft is determined to strong-arm you into upgrading.
Although Windows 7 will continue to receive updates until 2020, and Windows 8 until 2023, and in spite of the fact that these versions of Windows run quite happily on Skylake processors, Microsoft is discontinuing support for these versions of Windows on Skylake on July 17, 2017. That’s about eighteen months away.
After that point, only the “most critical” security fixes will be released for those platforms. There’s no guarantee of that either, as these fixes will only be released if they don’t “risk the reliability or compatibility” of Windows 7 and 8.1 on non-Skylake systems.
There’s yet-another caveat, too. Only a handful of machines will be eligible to receive updates and patches in the months leading up to July 2017, and these are overwhelmingly top-end business machines from a small handful of manufacturers. These are as follows:
- Dell Latitude 12
- Dell Latitude 13 7000 Ultrabook
- Dell XPS 13
- HP EliteBook Folio
- HP EliteBook 1040 G3
- Lenovo ThinkPad T460s
- Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
- Lenovo ThinkPad P70
Although this sounds scary, we should put this into perspective. Shipments of Skylake processors only really took off around the time when Microsoft released Windows 10. Only a small number of users are likely to be affected by these changes.
Why We Should Be Rejoicing
Looking at these announcements, we can only come to one conclusion: Microsoft is determined to not repeat the mistakes it made when it came to the discontinuation of Windows XP.
Even the largest Windows XP fan would agree that its continued prevalence has been a disaster for computer security. It lacked some of the most rudimentary user security protections, like UAC (User Account Control), and it saved passwords with the insecure LN hashing algorithm, making it trivially easy for someone who gains physical access to the computer to gain access to it.
Its flaws run much deeper than that. It just wasn’t all that good. Unlike Windows 10, there’s no integrated support for Microsoft’s cloud services, and no app store. It lacks the battery-saving and performance-enhancing tweaks of newer versions of Windows, and it isn’t optimized for touch-screen devices. In comparison to Windows 10, Windows XP has dated very unfavorably.
In a few years, I think we’ll look upon Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 in a similar way. Microsoft will continue to refine and upgrade Windows 10 (indeed, they’ve said that it’ll be the “last Windows ever”), increasing its arsenal of security enhancements and user features, and Windows 7 will look utterly archaic.
Rather than allow Windows 7 and 8.1 to continue to be used well past their prime, like Windows XP was, Microsoft is taking some drastic steps to bring about its graceful retirement. Ensuring that Windows 7 is insecure on current-generation hardware, and not supporting it on next-generation hardware will go a long way to meeting that goal.
In short, Microsoft is determined to make a break with their previous operating-systems. They have a vision of how in the future, no computers will be compatible with older versions of Windows. Although this will undoubtedly infuriate some users, it’ll go a long way to improving overall computer security.
Will It Work?
Over to you. If you haven’t upgraded yet, will this convince you to finally do so? Or will you hold on to Windows 7 until the bitter end? I want to hear about it. Drop me a comment below, and let me know your thoughts.
Photo Credits: USB Type-C (Intel Free Press), CHKDSK (Daniel Oines)