On April 7, Microsoft ended support for Windows XP. And because many, if not most, computers running XP don’t meet the system requirements for Windows 7 or Windows 8, that leaves XP users with limited options.

Spend hundreds of dollars to buy a new computer? Keep using Windows XP, even though it will be increasingly vulnerable to hackers and malware? Use the computer as a doorstop?

There is one other option — and it’s free. It’s called Linux Ubuntu. Current XP users will find its interface reminiscent of XP, but the Ubuntu operating system is in many ways superior.

Yes, Ubuntu’s requirements are a little more demanding than XP’s are, but many computers currently running XP should be capable. Ubuntu requires a 700 MHz processor or better, 512 megabytes of system memory, 5 gigabytes of hard-drive space, and a VGA display capable of 1024×768 screen resolution.

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Want to give Ubuntu a try? You’ll find the necessary software at www.ubuntu.com. And if you’re not sure, the site even offers a preview that you can experiment with.

XP users will be pleasantly surprised by Ubuntu’s desktop configuration. The majority of the display consists of empty desktop space that can be configured with icons of the user’s choosing, just as in Windows. There’s also a Windows-esque taskbar that runs along the left side of the screen (instead of the bottom, as in XP).

In this taskbar users will notice one the first pleasant surprises associated with running Ubuntu; there is a free LibreOffice suite included with the OS.

OK, so it isn’t Microsoft Office, but LibreOffice offers free, open-source versions of the major productivity applications: Writer, Calc and slideshow application Impress. These applications can read, edit and save to common Microsoft formats, including .docx, .xls and .ppt.

Users may already be familiar with the OpenOffice suite from which LibreOffice is derived, but the latter is a decided improvement. When I tried the OpenOffice suite several years ago, I found it clunky and unimpressive. But with LibreOffice, the functionality of all the programs has drastically improved.

Users will still run into some minor compatibility problems when switching between LibreOffice and Office applications, such as font and formatting differences, but most users should find that they can get by just fine with LibreOffice.

In addition to the LibreOffice suite, other free applications automatically install with Ubuntu. Mozilla’s Firefox browser automatically appears on the desktop taskbar for easy access to Web surfing. Rhythmbox is the included music player that, while admittedly not as pretty as iTunes, is functional and user friendly. (Those who use Apple devices such as the iPod are forewarned that iTunes won’t run on Ubuntu without installing a cludgy workaround.) Ubuntu also includes Shotwell, a simple photo manager.

A wealth of other programs, many free, is available to augment the Ubuntu experience. If a user would like to edit some of the photos organized within Shotwell, for example, Krita and GIMP are two free image-manipulation programs that rival the functionality of Adobe Photoshop. In fact, Ubuntu presents users with a one-click option to download Krita when opening a Photoshop file for the first time.

One fantastic feature unique to Ubuntu is the “Workspace Switcher” function, which can be accessed via an icon on the desktop taskbar. When users click on this icon, the desktop space is split into four squares of equal size, each representing a unique workspace consisting of the user-customized desktop and open programs of the user’s choice.

While the Workspace Switcher is open, users can drag open applications from one square to another, thereby grouping applications to make the workspace more functional. When a user is done organizing, a double-click on the desired workspace allows access to that set of applications. This is a fantastic feature that keeps things from getting cluttered.

Ubuntu is also relatively secure, largely for some of the same reasons that companies like Adobe and Apple refuse to write for open-source operating systems. They simply aren’t used by nearly as many people, resulting in fewer viruses written for them.

In addition to this naturally occurring protection, Canonical provides ongoing security updates, and a user can install other anti-virus applications. In fact, in a recent U.K. governmental security study, Ubuntu 12.04 beat out both Windows 8 and Mac OSX in security tests by an impressive margin.

It is true that for many professionals who work with programs such as Photoshop on a regular basis, the compatibility problems associated with many open-source operating systems may mean an upgrade from XP to Windows 7 or 8 is the best option, even if it requires a hardware upgrade.

But for many, the functionality of Ubuntu and its associated compatible programs makes for a great alternative.