Windows XP feels like home
Posted 2021-12-27. Last updated 2022-04-16.
Windows XP is one of those things that lie right at the dividing line between retro and modern. To convince oneself of this, it's easy to think about the games it can run natively: decidedly retro stuff such as DOS games and Age of Empires; sixth generation gems such as the GTA 3D trilogy and Half Life 2; popular 2010s games such as Portal 2 and Metal Gear Rising Revengeance; and stuff that was released literally last year such as Minecraft 1.16. What other system has ever had the privilege of being supported for so long? When one considers all this, it's no surprise that people of a certain age would have fond memories of Windows XP, as weird as that might sound.
It's been more than 20 years since XP was released and yet it's still used by around 1% of computer users, rounding up. Multiple factors that this could be attributed to come to mind, such as the high prices of new computers, unwillingness to "upgrade" old computers that run just fine, poverty, or simply stubbornness.
Today, I'm one of those 1%, as I'm using XP to write this article. Though it was supposed to be unsupported, dangerous and broken, I've been using it on and off for a month (and as my daily driver for the last couple of days) and I'm not only having an okay time with it, but it turns out that almost everything I use computers for, I can do on XP.
Back in the day
In the late 90s and early 00s we had a family computer running Windows 98 whose sole user was me, because my mom had no use for it any more after my dad's thesis was complete (he didn't want to learn to use computers so my mom typed down all his documents). Similarly, at school we had a computer lab where every machine ran on 98, except for one which had XP. They used to tell us that one computer was very powerful, reflecting XP's relatively high requirements at the time. That's why XP-tan had large breasts, you know?
XP-tan by Ikura Hato.
I had so much fun back then playing Age of Empires when the teachers weren't looking, and downloading images to take back home in floppies. I remember one of the pranks I used to do: I would take a screenshot of the desktop, set it as wallpaper, and then I would hide the desktop icons, so when people used the computer after me, they would be clicking on nothing. It was so hilarious!
When I installed XP at home, I distinctly remember disliking it and wanting to go back to Windows 98! But when I tried to run the 98 installer on XP, it complained saying something like
This installer won't run on Windows NT and that was that. I don't remember if I kept XP after that, but when my mom gifted me a computer for my birthday around 2004 (I know it was then because it had Doom 3 installed), it had XP. I used XP until Windows 7 came out in 2009, though I went back and forth between the systems for a while after that.
If 98 was the OS of my childhood, XP was the OS of my adolescence. It was on XP that I browsed the Internet on my own for the first tine, it was with it that I first tried Game Maker, edited my first videos in Movie Maker and much later Sony Vegas to upload them to Youtube when it was new, and talked to so many people on MSN Messenger. I remember installing dumb transformation packs that made the whole thing look like a Windows Vista that never existed, trying a lot of stupid shovelware, and struggling with Windows Genuine Advantage. It was an enjoyable time. Windows XP had -for better or for worse- an almost complete monopoly on the OS market, and that meant that there was no shortage of new and exciting things to do, as many who lived through the era will surely remember.
So when I noticed that my laptop (a Thinkpad T420) had drivers for Windows XP, I couldn't help it and had to install it again. I wanted to see for myself if it was still usable. In the rest of this article, I'll tell you what I installed to replicate my usual workflow (not necessarily in the order presented) and my final thoughts about my contemporary experience with it. I'll regularly update the next section of the article as I find more things to note.
An integral part of the eXPerience.
Setting it up
I'm using vanilla XP SP3, without addons such as XomPie.
I don't think it's a very good idea to install XP on an SSD and I didn't want to repartition the disk and dual boot anyway, so I swapped my laptop's SSD for an old 500 GB HDD that I had lying around. I couldn't figure out how to install it from USB, so I just burned a DVD with the installation media. It was a surprise for me to note that a vanilla XP disc has no drivers for SATA, so it was essential to disable AHCI in the BIOS and boot in compatibility (IDE) mode, because the installation program kept blue screening after loading drivers when booting normally. Luckily, it was an easy fix and the OS installed as normal after that.
Since Internet Explorer 6 wouldn't load anything, I had to use my main computer to download everything I needed such as drivers (including stuff like AHCI support and wi-fi). I made sure to get 7-zip and a decent text editor such as Notepad++ 7.9.2, the last version to support XP, or Vim (more on that later).
I'd say it's debatable if you really need a lot of updates, so I only got a couple: an update to the root certificates, TLS 1.1 and 1.2 support, and an update for Remote Desktop, because it's useful to login remotely (inside my home network, of course) with rdesktop. But if you really want ALL THE UPDATES and your system is in English by all means get the unofficial Service Pack 4.
I know what you'll say: oh, Windows XP is sooo outdated and it's sooo very dangerous to go online with it. But when people say that, they're thinking of viruses and ransomware and not things that actually matter such as corporate and governmental spying. It's non-trivial to avoid invasions of privacy even on modern systems (hell, you can be tracked online with only CSS), but at least viruses won't just magically infect your computer as soon as you go online. For example, the very infamous (and cool) Wannacry ransomware only attacked people with public facing SMB ports, and most people don't have public facing ports of any kind. So the truth is that with proper ad and script blocking and common sense you'll be fine, as usual. Your data will be fine. So stop being a coward, you have never cared about security in the first place anyway (but it's never too late to start).
My browser of choice is New Moon 28, as much as I'd like Internet Explorer 6 to work. It's a browser specifically built for XP based on version 28 of Pale Moon. Pale Moon 28 is not the newest, so New Moon admittedly won't perfectly load all sites, but for casual browsing it's alright. I've only had issues with Github and Gitlab. Although they will load, for browsing Youtube, Twitter, and Reddit, you'd be better off using instances of Invidious, Nitter, and Teddit respectively, which work beautifully and using fewer resources, though you can't post, obviously. I can attest that Gmail, Bandcamp, and Twitch work. Uploading to Youtube works (using Youtube Studio), but the site is so heavy that it grinds the computer down to a halt. I used New Moon 27 for a while and it's much faster than 28, but many sites will refuse to load in it.
Extensions such as uBlock Origin and uMatrix are essential for bloat-free browsing and avoiding as much tracking as possible. Current Pale Moon extensions won't install on New Moon without editing, so I downloaded (and copied from a Pale Moon install on my main computer) all the extensions I wanted and modified their install.rdf files to change their minimum requirements to match my version of New Moon. With this method I managed to install the latest versions of uBlock Origin Legacy, eMatrix, Greasemonkey, URL Rewriter, Decentraleyes, Suspender, Image Search Options, RecordRewind, and Reader View. They all work fine. New Moon also supports the Classic Addon Archive, though it is of no interest to me at the moment.
At first I didn't bother using a dedicated e-mail client like I do on Linux because web mail is good enough and most people use web mail anyway. However, a dedicated client became necessary and I got Thunderbird 52. To get Thunderbird to encrypt my emails, I got the last release of gpg4win that will run flawlessly on XP which is 2.3.4 (the current ones might work but all the extra tools are broken) and version 2.0.8 of the Enigmail extension. I'm not sure it's the most secure setup, but I'm willing to risk it. As a fun fact, I read that Outlook Express will connect to Gmail just fine.
As for RSS, I tried a few RSS feed reader programs for XP, but none worked very well. I instead installed Bamboo Feed Reader on New Moon. Thunderbird can also be used for that.
Because we all have friends on Discord that sadly keep us on the platform, I installed Pidgin 2.14.1 and purple-discord and set my notification sounds to MSN Messenger's, for the true 2000s experience. purple-discord does text chat only, but it's more than enough for communication, unless you really need voice chat. With the appropriate plugins, Pidgin can be used for every chat service you can imagine. I think the web version of Discord will load in New Moon 28, but I haven't tried it.
Torrenting is easy because I can use the best client, qBittorrent. 126.96.36.199 is its last release supporting XP. uTorrent 2.2.1, the last good release, will also work if you're feeling nostalgic.
Soulseek is useful for downloading and sharing music. Version 2014-12-19 of SoulseekQt is the latest I could find that works on XP. There used to be 2017 builds available that ran on XP, but they were posted on Dropbox and the links expired, so they're lost to time.
Finally, for easy FTP access (to update this site) I got the latest release of WinSCP. It's several orders of magnitude better than Filezilla, which I'm stuck with on Linux, and I thought Filezilla was fine until I started using WinSCP!
I needed git and I would get it no matter what. The last release of git for Windows that works in XP is 2.10.0. Aside from git itself, Git for Windows comes with a bunch of Unix utilities such as a few of the GNU coreutils and ssh, which are certainly very useful for basic git usage. It also includes vim, which I use a lot on Linux.
I've tested basic tasks such as cloning, pulling and pushing from repositories over HTTP(S) and SSH and it all works fine, though it will complain about certificates. It does however come with the right ones, so I had to execute something like "git config --global http.sslCAinfo XXXX/Git/mingw32/ssl/certs/ca-bundle.crt" (where XXXX is git's installation directory) to stop it from freaking out. I also got newer certificates from the newest release of Git for Windows and replaced the default ones, but I'm not sure if it was really necessary.
Now I'm not much of a programmer, but I know some Python and C. For Python 3 I got Python 3.4.3. Python 3.4.10 is the actual last official release for XP, but I couldn't bother downloading Visual Studio just to compile it (though there are binaries from a third party). All versions of Python 2 support XP. For C I got the Tiny C Compiler. I don't know what's the last version of MinGW for XP, but I found out that Code::Blocks still supports XP (more or less) and comes with a compatible MinGW distribution. Since I had already downloaded it, I thought I might as well use Code:Blocks. But for it not to crash on startup, I had to download these files and put them in my C::B installation folder. I added tcc to my path so C::B found it immediately. I wrote a quick hello world file and it compiled just fine with tcc and gcc. According to gcc --version, I'm running gcc 8.1.0.
Of course, you could also get the development tools from the time such as Visual Basic 6, Delphi, Visual Studio 2005, etc. You can easily find them in the Internet Archive or get them from the actual publishers. In the future, I'll try to setup Marsdev to develop for the Mega Drive, since I'm interested in that, but I doubt it'll be easy.
I briefly mentioned Vim before. The latest release, Vim 8.2, runs on XP. There is, of course, a caveat: plugins that require Python. For example, if a plugin expects Python 3, then you're out of luck as Vim 8.2 needs Python 3.9, which as already discussed is not available on the OS. One of the only two plugins I use regularly, UltiSnips, needs Python, but luckily it still supports Python 2.7 (but UltiSnips 3.2 will be the last version to do so). The other plugin I use, VimTeX, works just fine even without Python using the LaTeX setup discussed in the next section. By the way, I'm using vim-plug to manage my plugins, and it seems to work fine as long as git is in the path. I'm not sure if it's the best way to do it but at the very least it loads all the plugins I need.
If your Vim plugins absolutely need Python 3, then you'll have to use Vim 7.4 and Python 3.2, as no version of Vim was compiled against Python 3.4.
Dealing with documents
For this I got LibreOffice 188.8.131.52, the last release for XP, and it shouldn't be too incompatible with MS Office. The last version of Office that will run on XP is 2010, but it's barely any different from 2007 so it's pointless to get it. You could even get away with using 2003 and getting an extension that will add support for the Office 2007 format but I remember it always showing an annoying notification whenever you opened such documents when I tried it long ago. But eh, I don't use office programs too much since I prefer writing documents in markup like HTML and LaTeX anyway.
I wanted something to take handwritten notes in, so I found Onenote 2003 really useful for the task. It's not as nice as Xournal++ which I use on Linux but it's something. The nice thing about Onenote 2003 is that I could install it independently from Office 2003. It supports nice things such as pen pressure (just not with my tablet) and audio notes.
I was curious about it, so I got Macromedia Dreamweaver 8 to edit my site. It works fine, and it feels nice to edit HTML visually. It doesn't add anything extraneous to pages, so it's great.
I wanted LaTeX support, and I found that Tex Live 2017 works well. Compiling documents works just as expected, including figures and bibliography. To download it, just go to the historic archive, pick a mirror, and browse to systems/texlive/2017. Don't install the Texworks editor, it's broken. If you want a dedicated LaTeX editor, Texmaker 4.5 claims to support XP, but I haven't tried it.
To read PDF (and EPUB, DJVU, etc...) files, I got SumatraPDF 3.1.2. Speaking of PDFs, I wanted a way to print to PDF. The solution was to install Redmon and Ghostcript 9.50, and to follow these instructions. It does its job but it's not the fastest thing in the world.
Another tool I use very often is Zim, a desktop wiki software. I'm very pleased to say I can confirm that version 0.74.3, the latest as of this writing, works on XP. I only needed to install PyGObject (with default settings), since I already had Python 3.4. Even LaTeX and git integration work fine, and I assume the other plugins do as well.
Graphics and multimedia
To watch videos, I got the K-Lite Code Pack 13.8.5, just like back in the day. With minimal configuration, it installed everything necessary to watch movies and chinese cartoons, and I'm very pleased with it. Instead of installing the bundled MPC-HC, I decided to give Windows Media Player 9 a chance since I always hid it back then and look, it works just fine:
Windows Media Player 9 playing an episode of Tropical-Rouge! Precure (2021).
I heard that another viable option is VLC, which still supports XP and comes with its own codecs, if I'm not mistaken.
For image editing and drawing, my first thought was GIMP, since that's what I use on Linux. GIMP 2.8.22 is the last to support XP, but it's missing a few improvements from recent releases. It's perfectly functional nonetheless. I also got Adobe Photoshop 7.0 to use something of the era. Photoshop 7.0 can do so much it makes me wonder why they even keep making new versions of Photoshop. I know, I know, Adobe can't stay in business if you just use PS 7.0 forever. But you should definitely use PS 7.0 forever.
Did you know Wacom released XP drivers for their tablets all the way up to 2016? I didn't, so when I found out, I got a cheap used Wacom and, yup, it worked. Photoshop 7.0 and GIMP both play work well with the tablet, pressure sensitivity and all, so I can use them for digital art.
For vector graphics, I got Inkscape 0.92.3, which I think was the last release for XP. Macromedia Fireworks 8 is very nice to make graphics for web pages and the like. Something I installed immediately was Macromedia Flash 8. It's one of those things I regret not downloading as a child, but using it now is great; I actually feel like a kid in the 2000s. Swivel is available for converting Flash to video.
I couldn't find any video editing software made in the last ten years that still supported XP, so I decided to go back to my roots and download Sony Vegas 9. It wasn't the version I used as a kid, but it looks the same (and the keygen had the same song). I know Vegas 9 wasn't the one I used because I still had project files from back then and when I opened them Vegas 9 told me they were old! Anyway, it works. Vegas 10 also works, but only the portable version as I couldn't get it to install without Windows Media Player 11. Movie Maker needs no introduction and I'm gonna use it when I need some of its instantly recognizable effects and transitions. I use ffmpeg on Linux a lot, so I was happy to learn that someone who goes by CoRoNe keeps updated versions of ffmpeg specifically made to run on XP.
Audio playing and editing were no brainers. To listen to music, I personally use Windows Media Player 9 for general audio files and XMPlay for modules (the essential libopenmpt is still developed for XP and Vista, under the retro branch), but you can use Winamp like you did back then. For audio editing I use Audacity 2.1.3. This version is from before the MP3 patent expired, so for MP3 encoding I had to download LAME. It will also refuse to use the ffmpeg builds I mentioned before so I downloaded 2.2.2 exclusively for use with Audacity (but it's not something I'll use very often).
It was nice to notice that my audio interface (a Behringer UMC404HD) had drivers for XP, so I can use it to record my synths. All four channels are supported by Audacity and other programs but Windows sounds and MIDIs always play at 192 kHz, so they sound pitched-down. Everything else plays at the proper sample rate, though. Anyway, that means I can produce music on XP. For that, I needed a DAW. Surprisingly, the latest (at the time of this writing) 32 bit release of the free and open source DAW I sometimes use on Linux, Ardour 6.9, supports XP! It plays well with the audio interface, but I don't think it's very likely that I´ll ever find too many FOSS plugins for it. Ardour 7 will require Windows 7 or later.
Ardour 6.9 running on XP.
I've always used FL Studio, a program I love, so I installed the version I had. A user in the FL forums said that 184.108.40.2067 is the last version of that DAW that will run on XP, although I've only tested up to 220.127.116.119. Later versions either won't install or no longer have a 32 bit build available, finally ending support.
In addition, there are a plethora of VST plugins that work on XP since the technology goes way back. Here's a list of the ones I've tested, at the risk of listing too many:
- All free TAL Plugins
- Sforzando v1.916 (last available working version)
- ReaPlugs VST FX Suite
- Valhalla Freq Echo and Space Modulator
- Marvin's VSTs (Tromine9, 8, C, 6, etc)
- Illformed's free VSTs (including dBlue Glitch 1.3)
- Acon Digital Multiply 1.1.1 (last working version)
- Wavosaur VST Speek 1.3
- DSK Music's free plugins
- u-he TyrellN6 3.0.0
- Tunefish3 v3.3
- Strum GS-2 v2.3.3 (last working version)
Another instrument that works is Vocaloid3, which isn't officially supported even on Windows 8 but that still runs just fine in XP anyway. I tried the Gumi V3 voicebank, and she doesn't really sound any different from her Vocaloid4 counterpart. The latest release of Vocaloid3 can import project files from Vocaloid4, so I don't really lose much by going from one to the other.
The last version of OpenMPT officially made for XP is OpenMPT 1.28.10, though there are experimental builds that are up-to-date and run on XP and Vista. Another tracker I've used is Deflemask Legacy, which supports XP and always will since it's the last version of that program. VSTHost is another useful tool that works.
My USB MIDI keyboard (an Akai MPK Mini) was detected immediately by the system and all the programs I mentioned before were able to use it. In addition, they were all succesfully able to output MIDI data to my synths through my audio interface, so, yes, an XP machine is perfectly usable for music production!
I don't think there's a good way to stream (e.g. to Twitch) directly from XP, but even if there were I don't think my laptop is powerful enough for the task. Therefore, I got a cheap capture card which can be used on another computer.
This is gonna be a short section because it's a no-brainer. There are thousands of games from the XP era and earlier, so nobody really needs help with that. For example, you can't really miss the classic PC game archive. As far as emulators go, you can either try the same buggy ZSNES you've always used or do like me and get the XP build of Retroarch (unless you want a PS1 emulator, then there's ePSXe). There is also a backport of PCSX2 made by Neonfloppy. There might be ways to get Steam to work, but I'd rather just play stuff of the time.
Personally, though? I have only installed an old visual novel called Galaxy Angel.
It's a gimmick, but I like reducing my intake of blue light at night, so I got Redshift, whose latest version works in XP as long as you follow the instructions. I also wanted themes, and got the official ones: Zune, Embedded, Royale, and Royale Noir. They all look great. There are a million others if you patch your uxtheme, which we all did back in the day, but I don't have a reason to do it. As I said before, I decided to use Windows Media Player for music and video, so I got a few skins for it. This is very niche, but I wanted to get the pass password manager to work. It worked flawlessly with gpg4win, but I had to remove the gpg that came with Git from the path. I imported my key with gpg and, voilá, I have all my passwords. However, the OTP extension has way too many dependencies that aren't available on XP. Finally, I installed Throttlestop 6.0 for better power management, since I'm on a laptop.
If you want more software recommendations you can read the source for a lot of these.
All of that, I would say, is almost everything I need for my daily computing, so Windows XP is still perfectly usable. When you experience something old again and you still like it, then it's no longer nostalgia talking.
In the end, installing XP was a good experience. It made me think what was the point of all those upgrades they convinced us to get, when we still do the same things we did in 2007 with very few exceptions. Of course, the answer is that you won't stay in business if you let users keep their old trusty products forever, you need to fool them into thinking they need the latest useless features so you can make money. It would be foolish to think Microsoft weren't guilty of planned obsolescence even back in 2001 and there is no big tech company that doesn't do it today. The difference is that Microsoft "screwed up" by making XP very durable. They had no choice because of the whole Vista fiasco. And mind you they were very close to repeating themselves with Vista with a different taskbar Windows 7, almost making it "too good" and Vista but flat (sometimes) Windows 8 "too bad", so they quickly forced Vista but eternally beta Windows 10 on everyone (for free!!!) and it worked.
But besides that, I have proven at least to myself that an OS from 2001 running software released during its lifetime is more than enough to do almost everything I expect to be able to do on a computer. And because it won't suddenly disappear, it will remain capable forever, 2021 and beyond. I think I'll keep it installed.
Windows XP obviously has never been perfect and it would be ridiculous to tell you to use it, but if in its simplicity and flawedness it can do virtually everything I want, do I really need anything more? On a modern computer like my main workstation, I will never stop using Linux, because now more than ever software freedom, privacy, and security are important. But on an old computer Windows XP will do just as fine. It looks good, it's easy to use, it uses very few resources, and has an infinite software selection... it's great.
I don't know how a horrible soulless megacorp like Microsoft did it, but they made an OS that was homely, inviting, and accidentally enduring and everlasting. After XP, all of that was quickly lost.
- 2022-04-16: Added a bit of info about the last working version of FL Studio.
- 2022-03-26: Updated section about xmplay and added more VST plugins to the list.
- 2022-03-21: Added info on SoulseekQt, the VST plugins I've tested, and an update on MIDI output.
- 2022-03-06: Updated the Vim section.
- 2022-02-26: Added info on Vim and UltiSnips, a plugin for it.
- 2022-01-06: Added Zim Wiki and FL Studio 20.6.
- 2021-12-31: Added info on gpg4win and Enigmail.