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Windows 7 Review, Part 2: Picking a Product Edition

When it comes to the Windows 7 product lineup, I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is that Microsoft is once again burdening its customers with a large and unnecessary mix of product editions. The good news? It's a lot simpler than it was with Windows Vista. No, really.

In the good old days of course--I'm referring to 2001 or so--Microsoft made two versions of Windows, one for consumers and one for businesses. These products had different names over the years, and for a while the consumer line was defined by the buggy and ancient DOS-based Windows versions on which Microsoft rode to fame and fortune. This mix of Windows products was many things. But overall, it was simple.

Not anymore. During the lifetime of Windows XP, Microsoft branched out from the consumer ("Home") and business ("Professional") products that originally defined that release and added a number of specialty releases--"high-end" or "premium" SKUs in Microsoft-speak--that extended Windows into then-new markets like the living room ("Media Center") and a new generation of slate and convertible PCs that used handwriting as a primary form of input ("Tablet PC"). There was a 64-bit version ("x64 Edition"). A version for emerging markets ("Starter.") And so on.

In Windows Vista, Microsoft pulled x64 capabilities and the Media Center and Tablet PC technologies into the core OS, which was a hugely positive move. But the number of Windows product editions paradoxically blossomed and grew, which was unfortunate. Really unfortunate. Depending on how you counted, there were 9 Windows Vista product editions. Or 19. Or 219. Whatever it was really was, it felt like a million.

The Windows Vista product lineup wasn't just big, though, it was also a mess. There was no clear upgrade path from edition to edition. For example, Windows Vista Home Premium included some features, like Media Center, that weren't included in Windows Vista Business. The reverse was also true: Windows Vista Business included useful functionality like Windows ShadowCopy that you couldn't get in the Home Premium edition.

By comparison, the Windows 7 product lineup follows a simpler, more logical model. Each product edition builds on the one before it. The lowest-end edition, Windows 7 Starter, serves as a base of sorts. On top of that, in the US at least, Microsoft has added some features to arrive at Windows 7 Home Premium. Add a few more features and you get Windows 7 Professional. Add some more and you're at the top of the heap: Windows 7 Ultimate.

So don't believe the naysayers. Windows 7 isn't that complicated. You just have to look at it the right way.

A product edition matrix

Of course, you could also look at it the wrong way, as Microsoft's detractors will do in a bid to over-sensationalize this release. In the following chart, I've provided one sensible view of the actual Windows 7 product lineup.

Windows 7 product edition Compare with... 32-bit? 64-bit? Retail price Upgrade price
 Home Basic Vista Starter Yes No n/a n/a
 Starter Vista Home Basic Yes No n/a n/a
 Home Premium Vista Home Premium Yes Yes $200 $120
 Professional Vista Business Yes Yes $300 $200
 Enterprise Vista Enterprise Yes Yes n/a n/a
 Ultimate Vista Ultimate Yes Yes $320 $220

Whittling down the choices

This still looks somewhat convoluted. But you don't really have that many choices. The first thing we need to do is remove the product editions that simply don't (or shouldn't) apply to you. These include:

Windows 7 Starter. Microsoft's lowest-end Windows 7 product edition will be sold in mainstream markets like the US, but it will only be bundled with very low-end computers such as netbooks (and will only be made available in a 32-bit version). These low-end computers must meet certain requirements before Microsoft will allow PC makers to ship them with Windows 7 Starter. That is, they must include a low-end Atom or comparable processor, 1 GB of RAM, 256 GB (or smaller) of hard drive storage (or 64 GB or less of SSD storage), and a 10.2 inch (or smaller) screen. That pretty much describes your average netbook today, but even on such machines, it's very likely that you will be given a choice of Windows 7 Starter of Home Premium. You should always choose the latter when possible, as described below.

Windows 7 Home Basic. This version of Windows 7 will only be sold with new low-end PCs in emerging markets like India, Mexico, and similar places. You will not run into this version in the United States. So you can simply pretend it does not exist.

Windows 7 Enterprise. This Windows 7 version is not available to the general public but is instead provided only to Microsoft's biggest corporate customers. It is functionally identical to Windows 7 Ultimate edition, however. So if you happen to get an Enterprise-based notebook from work, you can pay attention to the bits about that version: The feature-set is identical.

Windows 7 K, N, and ABC editions. Microsoft sells special versions of Windows 7 in different markets around the world for antitrust reasons. Consumers in those countries largely ignore these products because they leave out interesting features. You should, too: They're not typically sold in mainstream markets and/or are not readily available from the normal sales channels. Ignore them.

For most people, the choice will come down to two or, at most, three choices, Windows 7 Home Premium, which as its name suggests is aimed at consumers, Windows 7 Professional, which adds some key business-oriented features, and Windows 7 Ultimate, which is of course the "uber" version of Windows 7 and includes every single feature.

Looked at in this way, the Windows 7 product lineup isn't really all that more complicated than the XP lineup was in 2001. However, you still have a decision to make. So let's compare the handful of Windows 7 product editions that you are most likely to run into in the real world and see which is best for you.

How to choose a product edition

When I reviewed Windows Vista three years ago, I provided a massive set of tables that described which features were available in each Windows Vista product edition. This time around, I've created a separate article, Windows 7 Product Editions: A Comparison, which provides the same kind of exhaustive run-down of virtually every feature in Windows 7. For this review, however, I've decided to provide an even simpler way to compare product editions, by simply listing each edition, from top to bottom, and describing the features that are added when you move up the product edition ladder. So let's start at the bottom, literally, with Windows 7 Starter.

Note: I will be describing all major new Windows 7 features in future parts of this review.

[ For an in-depth look at several key Windows 7 features, please refer to my Windows 7 Feature Focus. ]

Windows 7 Starter

Windows 7 Starter includes the basic Windows 7 feature set. You get the basic user interface, Windows Basic, but not Windows Aero, which provides the "glass" windows and Aero Desktop Enhancements such as Aero Peek, Aero Snaps, Aero Shake, Aero Background, and the like. You get Windows Search, Action Center, Windows Firewall and User Account Control (UAC), Parental Controls, Windows ReadyDrive, Windows Backup with system image capabilities (but not network-based backups), Internet Explorer 8, Windows Gadgets, Games Explorer with basic games only (FreeCell, Hearts, Minesweeper, Purble Palace, Solitaire, and Spider Solitaire), and a basic set of utilities like Calculator, Paint, Windows Fax and Scan, WordPad, and XP Viewer.

On the digital media front, Windows 7 Starter also provides basic functionality, with Windows Media Player, but not Windows Media Center, DVD playback, or Windows DVD Maker. You can join but not create homegroups. There's no IIS web server or remote desktop client or host. The system can't accommodate Tablet PC or multi-touch functionality. And of course there are no business- and enterprise-oriented features at all.

Windows 7 Starter is a decent, low-end product that will perform similarly to Windows XP Home on netbook class computers and provide most of the core functionality of the Windows 7 platform. But there are few perks, and certainly no eye candy. Indeed, Windows 7 Starter is hobbled in bizarre ways. You cannot change the desktop wallpaper at all, for example, a tedious and unnecessary restriction, especially when you consider that one of the core tenets Microsoft promotes with Windows 7 is how much users love to customize their PC desktops.

Some of the restrictions in Windows 7 Starter are understandable. The inability to create a homegroup is fine, since netbooks are ancillary or secondary PCs anyway, and most people will be running a higher-end Windows 7 version on their main desktop or notebook too. But the desktop wallpaper restriction is inexcusable, and the lack of Aero is troubling: All of today's netbooks are capable of running that UI, and it's not just better looking, it also brings stability and reliability improvements to the table. When you see Windows Aero, you know you're looking at a modern and capable OS. It screams "Windows 7." But the Windows Basic UI is ugly, and it seems like a punishment for those cheap enough to stick with this version of Windows 7. Don't do that to yourself. Skip Windows 7 Starter, even on a low-end netbook.

[ For a visual look at Windows 7 Starter, please visit my Screenshot Gallery. ]

Windows 7 Home Premium

Moving up to Windows 7 Home Premium, the picture improves dramatically, and I believe that most consumers will be happy with the feature set provided by this version. Windows 7 Home Premium builds on the core feature set from Windows 7 Starter, adding the wonderful Windows Aero user interface as well as all the nice Aero Desktop Enhancements that are unique to this Windows version. You get Windows Flip 3D, Live Taskbar Thumbnails, and live icon previews in Explorer. The net gain here is a user interface that is both more attractive and more efficient than the one provided with Starter. In fact, these UI improvements are, as far as I'm concerned, reason enough to upgrade. But there's more.

Windows 7 Home Premium also provides a set of fun premium games (Internet Backgammon, Internet Checkers, Internet Spades, and Mahjong Titans) and some useful utilities like Snipping Tool, Sticky Notes, and Windows Journal. You get advanced digital media features like a version of Windows Media Player that can be remotely controlled by other instances of Windows Media Player on your home network, Windows Media Center, DVD playback capabilities, and Windows DVD Maker.

Using Windows 7 Home Premium, you can create your own homegroups, for easy PC-to-PC sharing of documents, music, photos, and videos over your home network. It includes the IIS web server and Internet connection sharing capabilities. You get Windows Mobility Center, support for the Windows Sideshow gadget technology, and full Tablet PC and multi-touch functionality.

Windows 7 Home Premium is a winner. It's priced right, it includes the Windows 7 features that consumers want, and it's not shackled by any major functional omissions. Unless you require domain functionality or the handful of other business-oriented features that are unique to Windows 7 Professional, this is the one to get.

[ For a visual look at Windows 7 Home Premium, please visit my Screenshot Gallery. ]

Windows 7 Professional

The leap from Windows 7 Home Premium to Professional is quite a bit less profound, though of course certain people will simply have to get this version because it includes key business-oriented features like support for Active Directory-based domains. Windows 7 Professional users also gain access to Windows XP Mode, a fully-licensed version of Windows XP with Service Pack 3 that runs in a virtual machine under Windows Virtual PC and lets you solve any lingering compatibility issues caused by the big upgrade to Windows 7.

Additionally, Windows 7 Professional supports more RAM than does Windows 7 Home Premium, at least in 64-bit guise: 192 GB vs. just 16 GB for its lower-end cousin. It provides automated network backup capabilities to Windows Backup (arguably a key differentiator for individuals) as well as support for the Encrypting File System (EFS). It adds Remote Desktop host functionality, so that you can remotely control the PC from another PC, and Offline Files support, so you can access network-based documents while disconnected from that network. And Windows Mobility Center provides a unique presentation mode feature that isn't present in Windows 7 Home Premium.

Windows 7 Professional isn't as much of a slam-dunk as Windows 7 Home Premium, but then you either need it or you don't. Some of the discretionary advantages--I'm particularly fond of automated network backup functionality, for instance--could be a deciding factor. But for those who don't need domain support, Windows 7 Professional is overkill that doesn't really justify the price hike.

[ For a visual look at Windows 7 Professional, please visit my Screenshot Gallery. ]

Windows 7 Ultimate

As was the case with Windows Vista, Windows 7 Ultimate is the "uber" product edition, and the one that includes every single Windows 7 feature. Compared to Windows 7 Professional, however, there are only a few key functional differences that apply to individuals, making this a pretty uninteresting upgrade.

Windows 7 Ultimate provides support for the BitLocker and BitLocker To Go drive encryption technologies, the latter of which would arguably be quite useful to virtually anyone. But that's about it. The other features that are unique to Windows 7 Ultimate (and Enterprise) are really geared towards Microsoft's managed corporate customers. None are particularly interesting or relevant to individuals.

I recommend Windows 7 Ultimate only in those instances where the price is very compelling: I'm told that PC makers will periodically offer Windows 7 Ultimate at a steep discount, and in such a case it might make sense in order to get BitLocker To Go. If you can live without that however--perhaps by using a third party disk encryption tool, then you can safely ignore Windows 7 Ultimate. There's just not much to recommend it.

[ For a visual look at Windows 7 Ultimate, please visit my Screenshot Gallery. ]

Other considerations

Aside from Windows 7 Starter, all mainstream Windows 7 product editions will ship with both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) discs at retail. Those who buy Windows 7-based PCs, however, will need to pick between 32-bit and 64-bit at the time of purchase. This continuing stratification of the product line seems unnecessary to me, and my expectation (and hope) is that Windows 7 will be the last Windows product to ship in a 32-bit version. I'm not going to waste much time on this discussion beyond noting that the days of 64-bit incompatibilities are mostly over. Most people will not notice any differences between a 32-bit and 64-bit version of Windows 7 aside from one thing. While 32-bit versions of Windows 7 are limited to supporting just 4 GB of RAM (of which only 3.1 to 3.5 GB are actually usable), 64-bit versions can access between 16 GB and 192 GB of RAM, depending on the product edition. For game players, video and multimedia editors, and other high-end users, that fact alone makes 64-bit interesting. But there's no reason for even average consumers to fear 64-bit Windows. Those days are over.

Also take note of the many upgrade opportunities that are available to Windows 7 customers. If you do end up with Windows 7 Starter on a netbook, for example, you can use a feature called Windows Anytime Upgrade to quickly, easily, and inexpensively upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium. This upgrade takes just ten minutes and doesn't destroy any data. I'll discuss it a bit further in the next part of this review.

Continue to Part 3: Installing, Upgrading, and Migrating...

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