Windows 7 Buyer's Guide: Which Edition is Right for You?


If you were frustrated by trying to figure out which edition of Windows Vista was the right choice ("hmm...If I use Vista Business, I don't get Windows Media Center, but if I use Vista Home Premium, I don't get image backup..."), Microsoft has done us all a favor by rethinking the feature sets for Windows 7.

Yes, there are still multiple SKUs to consider, but this time, you no longer need to worry about what's left out if you move up from one edition to another. To find out how the different US editions of Windows 7 compare in features, what Microsoft is doing to satisfy EU regulators, and what it will cost you to pre-order a Windows 7 upgrade now compared to waiting until it ships, keep reading.

Check out our Windows 7 Upgrade Guide here!

This Time, Windows 7 Editions Build On Each Other

There are three Windows 7 editions that will be sold at retail in the US market:

  • Home Premium
  • Professional
  • Ultimate

If you tried out Windows 7 in its public Beta or RC versions, you used a pre-release of the Ultimate edition, although it's possible to tweak the installation process to install other editions. So, what are the major "core" features of these editions of Windows 7?

According to Microsoft's "Which One Is Right for You?" page , here are the common features (many of which we will cover in current or upcoming Feature Focus articles):

  • Improved GUI and desktop navigation
  • Windows Search
  • Internet Explorer 8
  • HomeGroup (Windows 7-specific networking)

Microsoft's list leaves out some significant core features, though, including:

Why Home Premium?

By making image backup a core feature of Home Premium as well as higher SKUs, Microsoft makes it much easier to make Home Premium a "no second thoughts" choice for home or small office-home office users uncomfortable with Windows Vista Home Premium's omission of image backup but not needing the extra features of Professional or Ultimate editions.

Moving On Up - Windows 7 Professional

Microsoft has dropped the "Business" moniker for its small-business edition of Windows 7 and reverted to the "Professional" label it used in previous generations. And, unlike Windows Vista Business, which forced potential upgraders from Windows Home Premium to trade away Windows Media Center to get support for business networking and image backup, there are no tradeoffs if you decide to try Windows 7 Professional over Windows 7 Home Premium: every Home Premium feature is also included in Windows 7 Professional . So, what else is in there?

The major upgrades to Windows 7 Professional from Home Premium include:

  • Automatic backup supports network shares as well as local hard disks
  • Domain network support

Why Go Pro?

If you...

  • ...routinely move between domain and workgroup networks (such as a home or branch office network)
  • ...need support for Windows XP-compatible applications that just don't run under Windows 7
  • ...prefer to back up to a network share without using third-party backup programs

...Windows 7 Professional's a no-brainer choice.

Next: But what about Ultimate?

Windows 7 Ultimate - The Top, But Not So "Ultimate" Choice

Windows 7 Ultimate, like its Windows Vista ancestor, combines all the features of Windows 7 retail editions with features from Windows 7 Enterprise. However, unlike its predecessor, there will be no Windows 7 Ultimate Extras . So ends what many regard as a program that offered much more sizzle than steak.

According to Microsoft, the chief benefits of Windows 7 Ultimate over other editions include:

  • Support for BitLocker full-disk encryption
  • The ability to switch between languages on the fly

Why Move Up to Ultimate?

At first glance, unless you need to work with multiple languages on the same PC, Windows 7 Ultimate might look completely skippable. However, if you work with sensitive information, the improvements in BitLocker may persuade you to make the jump.

Windows 7's version of BitLocker can now encrypt external drives (including USB keys) so you can transport data between home and office without worrying about being mugged and winding up in the next data breach headline. If you don't want to upgrade both ends of a data-transport chain with Windows 7 Ultimate, BitLocker also includes a secure BitLocker to Go feature that enables Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP users with the proper credentials to access BitLocker-secure media in read-only mode.

Buy Vista or a Vista PC Now, Get Windows 7 Free Later

Buy a PC running Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, or Ultimate between June 26th, 2009 and January 31st, 2010 from sponsoring manufacturers and vendors, or buy these editions of Vista separately, and you qualify for a free upgrade to the equivalent Windows 7 edition .

Getting Windows 7 Very Cheap - If You're Fast on the Click

However, if you're not in the market for a new PC, and don't want to buy Vista now to qualify for a free Windows 7 upgrade, you can still get a cool upgrade deal if you use Windows XP or Vista - if you hurry . If you pre-order Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional upgrade editions right now , you can cash in on significant savings:

  • Home Premium upgrade $49.99 (down from $119.99)
  • Professional upgrade $99.99 (down from $199.99)

If you're currently running Windows Vista Ultimate (like I am) and decide you don't need BitLocker or multilanguage support, you can "upgrade" from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Professional. Note that these savings expire July 11th in the US, and are available from many retailers as well as from Microsoft's online store .

Waiting Will Cost You

What happens if you skip these offers? Buy Windows 7 at retail or non-promotional upgrade pricing and you'll have a hole in your wallet. See our own Paul Lilly's original article for details . As you might expect, upgrade pricing is for licensed users of Windows Vista or Windows XP.

Other Windows 7 Editions

Windows 7 Starter replaces Windows XP on netbooks, and will also be sold in developing countries. It omits image backup, Windows Aero, Windows Media Center, and 64-bit support.

As with Windows Vista, Microsoft will ship Windows 7 editions that do not include Internet Explorer into the EU to satisfy regulatory requirements.

If you're ready for Windows 7, now is a great time to upgrade your software or your systems. Hit Comment and tell us your tips for scoring a Windows 7 upgrade or vote for your favorite edition.

Mark is the author of the forthcoming book Easy Microsoft Windows 7 , and is inspiring digital photographers everywhere with his new book The Shot Doctor: The Amateur's Guide to Taking Great Digital Photos .

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