Windows 7 comes in six different flavors — with a few more niche alternates just for good measure. We’ve told you why (or why not) to buy Windows 7, but which Windows 7 edition is right for you? We breakdown the feature sets in this buyers guide.
THE EDITION LADDER
High on the list of ways in which Windows 7 is superior to Windows Vista is the arrangement of Windows 7 editions. In Windows Vista, the slates of features available in each flavor of the operating system read like a dyslexic Chinese menu, with features added and subtracted from each Vista version with no apparent logic. In Windows 7, each successive edition contains all the features of the preceding edition — like a tiered feature ladder — so there’s a clear upgrade path and relationship between escalating price and escalating value.
That said, there are still some quirks to the Windows 7 edition array, not the least of which is that not everyone can buy every edition, and that some editions won’t be available at retail. We break down the main feature sets below.
WINDOWS 7 STARTER
The first thing to note about Starter edition is that it’s OEM-only, so it comes preinstalled or not at all. Also, there’s no 64-bit edition of Windows 7 Starter, no native DVD playback, no multi-monitor support, and — this is the important part — the Aero graphic user interface is stripped out. Basically, Microsoft pared down Windows 7 Starter to run on netbooks, so it’s graphically neutered. Don’t let these limitations fool you; Windows 7 Starter still comes with all the important non-graphic bits, including Internet Explorer 8, Windows Media Player 12, the new versions of Calculator, Paint and WordPad with the controversial ribbon interface, and the revamped Windows Defender, Firewall and Action Center (without the constant Vista-esque user signoffs). Windows 7 Starter still offers the new enhanced Taskbar with pinned applications and Jump Lists, and its got the enhanced SuperFetch that makes opening and switching applications surprisingly fast. Perhaps most importantly, Windows 7 Starter can run more than three applications at once, which was not true during beta testing. Despite its reputation, Microsoft actually listened to feedback on that front.
WINDOWS 7 HOME PREMIUM
Windows 7 Home Premium is the cheapest version of Windows 7 available at retail in mainstream markets, with a suggested retail price of around $200 at launch. (There is a Windows 7 Home Basic edition, which is mostly a shined-up version of Starter, buts it’s available only in “emerging markets” like India.) Home Premium is also the edition that Microsoft expects to be its top seller. Along with the Aero graphic user interface, Home Premium offers more visual personalization options — including the slick new Windows 7 themes with background slideshows — that are missing in Starter edition. Fast User Switching, multi-monitor video, and touchscreen support are also conspicuously present. The big difference between Starter and Home Premium — besides the Aero interface — is the inclusion in Home of the complete Windows Media Center package, which offers streaming from one Windows Media Player to another over the same network, DVD playback, DVD authoring, and all the media-handling of previous WMC editions. Home Premium is also the Windows 7 edition that can create a HomeGroup share, while Windows 7 Starter PCs can simply join them. HomeGroup shares are like personal, local peer-to-peer networks, which are great for controlling access to shared files on a local network. This is perfect for anybody sharing a dorm network or who has roommates or children they don’t want accessing certain music or image files across a shared network.
WINDOWS 7 PROFESSIONAL
There are some nice additional add-ins in Windows 7 Professional — like local offline file caches, backing up restore points to network shares, and acting as a Remote Desktop server — but the two main value-adds are Windows Server domain support, and XP mode. Those upgrade will run you about $100 more than the price of Home Premium, with a full suggested retail price of Windows 7 Pro running about $300. For those of you running Windows XP-only legacy apps, this is where you start, because Windows 7 Professional is the cheapest edition that has the XP mode emulator. Windows 7 Professional is also the cheapest edition that can join a Windows Server domain, which is a growing concern for home users but not exactly common. If either Windows domain access or XP emulation aren’t on your need-to-have list, odds are you don’t need to upgrade from Home Premium to Professional.
WINDOWS 7 ULTIMATE/ENTERPISE
The two main upgrades found in Windows 7 Ultimate are BitLocker data encryption and the ability to create AppLockers, which can block out banned programs from running on the OS. These bell and whistles are actually surpisingly cheap, considering that Ultimate only retails for about $20 more than Windows 7 Pro, with a full suggested retail for Windows 7 Ultimate of about $319. If the main Ultimate add-ons sound like corporate-centric features, they are. It’s unlikely the average home user will need to encrypt local files or create “safe” application lists (though I know a few tech-savvy parents who may vehemently disagree). Ultimate also sports some slick language translation and network printer-handling features but, again, these are concerns largely for businesses rather than conventional end-users. Windows 7 Ultimate supports some UNIX applications, which should please some in the open source crowd, but this feature is mostly aimed at the legacy app/server farm community, which is (again) to say large businesses. The only difference between Windows 7 Ultimate and Enterprise is that Enterprise is available under volume licensing, with some of the Windows Software Assurance bells and whistles.
To comply with European Union antitrust requirements, Microsoft is reportedly producing alternate versions of each Windows 7 edition. E-type alternates (for example, Windows 7 Professional E) have Internet Explorer 8 stripped out. N-type alternates have Windows Media Player 12 stripped out. Even in non-alternate editions, both those programs can be uninstalled from any version of Windows 7.
The main choice for most users will be between Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional, with networking the primary determining factor. If you need to join a Windows domain, you need Windows 7 Professional or above. If you aren’t worried about networking, Windows 7 Home Premium is the edition of choice. Windows 7 Starter should be regarded as a netbook-only option, and the Enterprise/Ultimate product is almost exclusively for the security hyper-conscious. Your mileage may vary, but for most users Windows 7 Home Premium will be more than good enough.