With Windows 8, Microsoft has simplified the product lineup such that there are basically just two retail editions of Windows 8 that upgraders need to think about, Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, plus a third edition, called Windows RT, which will be sold only with new ARM-based PCs and devices.
That means that for most consumers, choosing a Windows 8 product edition is simpler than it’s been since October 2001, when Microsoft released Windows XP in two flavors, Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional Edition.
That said, there are still some complications. For example, you don’t so much choose between Windows 8/Pro and Windows RT as you do choose between different machine types. And despite some confusing language from Microsoft, I like to break those machine types down into two groups: PCs, which are based on the traditional Intel-compatible x86/x64 architecture, and devices, which are based on the ARM platform. Windows PCs run Windows 8. Windows devices run Windows RT.
Windows PCs will include traditional desktops, all-in-ones, laptops, ultrabooks, various hybrid computers, and tablets. The expectation is that Windows devices will consist primarily of different types of tablets, but you can expect, confusingly, other PC-like designs as well. This is going to be the area of most difficulty for consumers, I expect: PCs that look like devices and devices that look like PCs.
Comparing the two software systems isn’t that hard, however. Aside from the underlying architectural differences, Windows 8 (the base version) and Windows RT are roughly comparable, with just a few (but important) key differences. That is, the feature sets of the two products are very similar, almost identical. Windows 8 Pro, meanwhile, is a true superset of Windows 8, offering every single feature in Windows 8 plus several unique features.
Put another way, Windows 8 and Windows RT are aimed squarely at consumers, just as was Windows XP Home a decade ago. And Windows 8 Pro is aimed at businesses and enthusiasts just like XP Professional.
Microsoft has already published a very incomplete and uncategorized table of the features that are available in each Windows 8/RT product edition. Rafael Rivera and I are collecting a much more detailed and better organized set of tables for Windows 8 Secrets, which will be available later this year. But you don’t need a complete, pedantic rundown of features to choose the correct Windows 8 product edition. In fact, most people will be able to figure out what they need right now.
Do you need Windows 8 Pro?
The first thing you should do is to try and eliminate Windows 8 Pro as an option. The reasoning is simple: If you absolutely need even a single Windows 8 Pro feature, then this is your only option. The following features are not available in either Windows 8 (the base version) or Windows RT:
The ability to upgrade (not just migrate) from Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate. If you need to perform an in-place upgrade with an existing PC and are currently running Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate, you will need to purchase Windows 8 Pro.
BitLocker and BitLocker To Go. These features provide full-disk encryption for fixed and removable disks, respectively, providing protection for your data even when the drive is removed and accessed from elsewhere. (Windows RT does provide a feature called device encryption which, while not identical to BitLocker, provides the same basic functionality.)
Encrypting File System. EFS is somewhat deemphasized in Windows 8 thanks to BitLocker and BitLocker To Go, but it provides a way to encrypt individual drives, folders or even files, protecting them from being accessed externally should the drive be removed from your PC.
Client Hyper-V. Microsoft’s server-based virtualization solution makes its way to the Windows client for the first time, providing a powerful, hypervisor-based platform for creating virtual machines.
Boot from VHD. This new capability allows you to create a virtual hard disk, or VHD, in Client Hyper-V and then boot your physical PC from this disk file rather than from a physical disk.
Domain join. If you need to sign-in to an Active Directory-based domain, you will need Windows 8 Pro.
Group Policy. Microsoft’s policies-based management technology requires an Active Directory domain and thus Windows 8 Pro.
Remote Desktop (host). While any Windows 8 PC or device can use a Remote Desktop client to remotely access other PCs or servers, only Windows 8 Pro can host such a session, allowing you or others to remotely access your own PC.
Windows Media Center. For a small (and as yet revealed) fee, Windows 8 Pro users can purchase Windows Media Center, a feature that used to be included in higher-end versions of Windows. This feature is not available to Windows 8 or Windows RT users.
And that’s it. It really hasn’t been this easy to choose between Windows product editions in over a decade.
Windows 8 vs. Windows RT
If you don’t need any Windows 8 Pro features, you’re left to choose between Windows 8 (for Intel-compatible PCs) and Windows RT (for ARM-based devices). Most people will probably choose between various PCs and devices since the feature sets of the two software products are so similar. But there are some important factors to consider before you start eyeballing new hardware. Key among them:
You cannot upgrade to Windows RT. If you wish to perform an in-place upgrade or migration from an existing PC running Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, or Home Premium, you will need Windows 8 (or Windows 8 Pro).
Windows RT cannot run “legacy” Windows desktop software. And that’s going to be a major blocker for many people. However, don’t confuse what this means: Windows RT does include the desktop environment along with all of the built-in Windows 8 desktop software like Windows Explorer and Task Manager. (And the bundled Office 15 applications, noted below, are Windows desktop applications.) What you can’t do with Windows RT is run x86/x64-based applications. And there are a ton of them out there.
Windows RT does not include two Windows 8 features. The desktop-based Windows Media Player application and the Storage Spaces feature are not available in Windows RT.
On the flipside, Windows RT does include some advantages over Windows 8. These include:
Office 15. Windows RT ships with bundled versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote 15. Windows 8 users will need to buy these products, or use the Office Web Apps, to get equivalent Office functionality.
Device encryption. Windows RT ships with full device encryption, which can protect the data on the device if the drive is removed or otherwise accessed externally. Windows 8 users would need to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro or purchased a third party encryption solution to acquire this functionality.
Sometime in the future, we’ll be able to examine and compare Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices, which should further muddy the waters. But armed with this information, many people will be able to make their choice right now. If you’ve struggled with Microsoft’s insane product editions line-ups during the Windows Vista and Windows 7 years, this is nothing but good news.