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My parents (both of whom are over 65) do one thing on their computer, check their webmail.

I currently have XP on their aging (but still solid) Dell PC. The specs are as follows: 3GHz P4 processor with HT, 1GB original Dell RAM, 160GB HD, ATI Radeon 600.

All I have on here currently is the Chrome browser and Microsoft Security Essentials, they log in as a standard user, I have an admin user setup seperately which they don't have access to. I have CCleaner setup to run on a regular basis.

However, I know that, despite this, XP is not a secure OS, also it is not going to be supported much longer by MS. Should I go with Windows 7, Ubuntu, Chromium OS (the Hexxus Lime build which I am leaning towards currently) or something else?

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closed as too localized by random Aug 6 '12 at 22:44

This question is unlikely to help any future visitors; it is only relevant to a small geographic area, a specific moment in time, or an extraordinarily narrow situation that is not generally applicable to the worldwide audience of the internet. For help making this question more broadly applicable, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Put the system behind a router with built-in firewall, and give them a little bit of computer-security education—even 10 minutes should be sufficient—and they should be fine (better off than a surprisingly large number of people anyway—botnets with millions of zombies‽ What are those people downloading viruses on purpose‽ o.O). – Synetech Feb 13 '12 at 19:49
If they are familiar with Windows keep them on Windows OS, the elderly typically do not like to relearn a completely different OS. A little over 2 years left for XP, then upgrade to W7. – Moab Feb 13 '12 at 20:09
@Moab: The OP got them onto Chrome -- if the most important thing they do with their PC is browse the internet, swapping out IE for Chrome is a major UI change. The UI widgets for Windows are minor in comparison. – afrazier Feb 13 '12 at 20:48
To be fair I never let them use IE, Chrome for the last couple of years, Firefox before that! Theyve also used Ubuntu before from when I went through my "I hate Microsoft, I'm gonna put Linux on everything" phase as a teenager – JMK Feb 14 '12 at 0:31
@afrazier I found chrome much easier to use and understand myself, and I am no spring chicken. – Moab Feb 14 '12 at 4:35
up vote 5 down vote accepted

For those that have said "just throw up a firewall, XP will be fine" I want to play a little devil's advocate.

The attack that rooted RSA's servers was an email attack, It was a PDF with corrupted embedded fonts that exploited kernel bug to make a root hole in the kernel.

Education? This was RSA, and they got suckered in. The idea is pretty complex stuff, imagine explaining what a kernel and root kit are to your parents. Was it a PDF exploit? Technically no, PDF (and email) were just the vectors. A firewall would not have helped (or did not, I assume RSA of all people had a firewall).

IE - just because you don't browse with IE doesn't mean you don't use it. Think of "IE" as a container with some menus, the actual HTML rendering is an ActiveX control that is used in a lot of other programs. Saying 'use Chrome' doesn't fix everything. IE must be kept up to date no matter what people click on for their webmail.

Computer security is hard. A computer is (effectively) an infinite state machine. Some of these states are unexpected, either due to bad design or bugs, and are exploitable. Windows XP is a target for a bunch of reasons, some due to bad design, some due to popularity (a large target for infection), some due to naivete (since Windows is a default install, you don't need to be technical to get it running, so non-technical people are connected to the net), some due to bugs.

I've been online long enough to remember when simple viruses were released to just show that you could - Concept-1. Now, you can make a lot of money with botnets. Thousands, even hundreds of thousands for a good botnet. There are people who can make millions of dollars if they can on your computer (and others). It's worth their time and effort to find all the weird corner cases that even Microsoft didn't think about. It's worth their time and money to try over and over with many exploits to get your box

I'd personally think of the Ubuntu option a bit more. The fact that they're scared of it may be a good thing, they're less likely to make changes that interfere with security. No computer is 100% secure, but Linux is a bit more so. That Popup that says 'make your Windows box faster' and loads an ActiveX control (all safely passing through the firewall) is not a problem on Linux. Downloads need the execute flag turned on to run.

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The RSA attack was also targeted -- there's a very big difference between that and a drive-by download. Right now most common source of exploits are from Adobe: Flash & Acrobat. Chrome has sandboxed Flash & a replacement PDF renderer, and runs with stripped privileges on XP, negating most of those. Also, migrating to Vista or 7 may not gain a significant amount of security on the OP's system: – afrazier Feb 14 '12 at 1:50
The biggest improvements: DEP/NX, ASLR, etc. are only available or effective on 64-bit Windows. A P4 3.0 w/ HT may or may not have been able to take advantage of those features. ASLR isn't nearly as useful on 32-bit Windows simply because there isn't a lot of AS to do LR with. DEP/NX & 64-bit would depend on the which CPU the system has. Sure, there's other improvements as well, but UAC is of no use in the OP's scenario (primary users already being Standard Users), and IE8 on XP is still receiving security updates. – afrazier Feb 14 '12 at 1:54
"This was RSA, and they got suckered in" makes it sound like the entire company was "suckered", it only takes one ID10T, and every company has at least one employee that fits that description. – Moab Feb 14 '12 at 4:43

XP's on extended support until April of 2014. There's a distinct chance that the system will die between now and then rendering the entire issue moot.

I think that as long as that PC is working and it's behind a firewall, it should be fine. You've already done everything else right: Chrome & Standard User. Assuming you've property secured the system, there's simply not that many attack vectors that don't involve your parents clicking on something they shouldn't.

When you do go to switch, there's still the issue of support. Don't go putting Ubuntu on a system if you're not comfortable with its administration and remote troubleshooting.

Any OS you're installing for someone else's primary use should at least undergo a modicum of testing and have some kind of support behind it. I wouldn't be comfortable handing someone a Chromium OS or ReactOS system as their primary gateway to the internet.

Finally, I'm only talking about an old system that's still in place and doing it's job. There's no way I'd recommend anyone go about installing XP on a PC on 2012.

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If your parents tend to stay virus free and don't open the email from the Super Rich Nigerian Prince then you may already have the best setup.

If all they do is check their email put a browser shortcut (just not IE) smack in the middle of the desktop and set their homepage to their webmail.

My reasons to stick with XP

  1. Everyone knows it. Should your parents need help more than a few people could help them. On the other hand, if they try to ask one of their friends about Ubuntu.....
  2. No need to reinvent the wheel if they know XP.
  3. Even if Microsoft stops supporting Xp its not like they will be able to find Ubuntu Support.

And for emergencies just keep a reinstall disk or a clean system image laying around :)

But if it comes down to them getting viruses every week I would load up a version of Ubuntu that looks like Windows (Not the newer versions) and have as it down session and teach them all the basics.

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Already done the above, their homepage is their webmail login, and I have a big shortcut in the middle of their desktop that says EMAIL. I even went to the trouble of setting the logo of this shortcut to the Outlook Express logo! – JMK Feb 13 '12 at 20:00
Now thats perfect! – sealz Feb 13 '12 at 20:04

This is purely preference since you're the one who has to support it. As "that person" in my family. I have switched 8 people in 3 families to Ubuntu, for no other reason than because they are not computer geeks. They just do a few simple tasks and want them to be easy, bulletproof, and reliable. I want to never have to answer another computer question again. 11.10 with the unity interface, the nice big buttons, the ease of setup and administration is just the ticket.

They actually all started at 10.04 but as of 11.10 and onto 12.04 especially, there is no going back and everyone loves it. Especially me because I haven't had to reinstall XP in 2 years.

One nice thing here is that you can run it yourself on a USB live boot (choose a couple Gb persistent storage to allow for changes) for a couple of days to try things like adding, printers, configuring things etc.

But I repeat you have to feel good about anything you put on because you have to live with it. I started in this same situation and ended up where I am now. I will never own another product again.

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In this case though, rather than the plain vanilla ubuntu, i think the lxde respin or an alternate DE thats windows like would be a good idea, especially with an older system – Journeyman Geek Feb 13 '12 at 23:44
I'm running a copy of Lubuntu on a 10 yr old laptop and agree that yes it works fine. I have at least 1 stock install on a system less capable than the one described and believe that in this use case it is fine. I was just going for the primarily supported version because of the abundance of info, and documentation. – Dennis Feb 14 '12 at 11:29

You may want to consider a different angle and go with an iMac. Apples are actually perfect for parents or very non IT literate folks who just use internet, office and media. I got my parents one and never looked.. plus I dont get bogged down with all those supports calls.

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He's not looking to buy a very expensive new computer, but to change the operating system that's on it. – Rob Feb 13 '12 at 19:42
@Rob just an alternative suggestion and you can pick up fairly cheap refurbished models. – onxx Feb 13 '12 at 21:14

If they only use the computer to check webmail, I would remove the hard drive, put a Ubuntu CD in the DVD drive and be done with it.

Firefox will be a click away, the system is fresh with every boot, no security or malware concerns.

If you want to get fancy, put the DVD image on a hard drive and maybe adjust the boot menu a bit to speed the whole boot process up.

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Ubuntu Netbook edition has nice program icons on the side of screen

Just do your best to get rid of password prompts via sudoers file..

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And how can we edit the sudo file to do this? – Simon Sheehan Feb 20 '12 at 13:26
Isn't Ubuntu Netbook edition discontinued? I thought once they put Unity into the Desktop version they decided they didn't need the netbook version anymore! – JMK Feb 20 '12 at 13:41
I mean LTS.... Also mandriva has big icons on default screen... – ZaB Feb 21 '12 at 21:22

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