Back in the days of Windows XP there were only two editions of the operating system to choose between, namely XP Home and XP Professional. With Windows Vista, this number ballooned to take in seven different editions. Now, Windows 7 comes in six varieties: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate, each offering a different combination of features and capabilities.
If you’re shopping for a netbook, the odds are it will come with the stripped-down Windows 7 Starter edition. This edition will run all the same applications as the “mainstream” editions, but many of the multimedia features and cosmetic fripperies have been cut out.
Considering how attractive and versatile the other Windows 7 is, Starter is a little disappointing. The choice of which edition of Windows comes on your new notebook, we suggest you opt Premium instead. If you don’t have that option, always buy the machine with Starter, then use the Upgrade system to perform an “inplace” upgrade from Starter to Home Premium.
Home Premium is the version of Windows that’s best suited to home users. It contains new tools and options that will appeal to anyone who uses their PC for entertainment. The star of the show is the latest version of Windows Media Center. This can turn your PC into a full-screen entertainment system, complete with video on demand and TV recording capabilities if your computer’s equipped with a TV tuner.
Home Premium will suit most users perfectly, but it lacks some of Windows 7’s most advanced features. There’s no BitLocker disk encryption, no Remote Desktop and no Windows XP Mode. The Backup and Restore Center is also restricted to local hard disk or DVD backups, rather than offering the full versatility available with more advanced editions.
As its name suggests, Windows 7 Professional is primarily targeted at businesses, but its powerful new features will also appeal to advanced users looking for more versatility than Home Premium offers. For a start, it comes with an enhanced version of Backup and Restore Center that allows you to back up both personal and system files and to schedule backups (the version included in Home Premium only allows for manual backup of personal files).
The Encrypting File System adds a layer of protection to your hard disk, using new algorithms that are effectively impossible to hack – good for peace of mind if you’re worried about your notebook being lost or stolen. Perhaps the most interesting addition in Windows 7 Professional is Windows XP Mode. The vast majority of older applications will work in Windows 7 without any problems, but in a few cases a recalcitrant application might refuse to run in the newer OS.
Unlike Windows 7 Starter and Home Premium systems, Windows 7 Professional PCs can also join network domains (a necessary feature if your computer is centrally managed by an IT department using a domain). Windows 7 Professional also includes every feature of 7 Home Premium, including Aero, multi-touch functionality for touchscreen displays, Media Player 12 and (though it may seem surplus to business requirements) Windows Media Center.
As the name suggests, the Ultimate edition contains absolutely everything that’s new in Windows 7 – every feature from Home Premium and Professional, plus a few extra features that appear only in this edition. Two such features of particular interest are AppLocker, which restricts which applications can run on a network, and BitLocker, which offers full-disk encryption to ensure no-one can get their hands on your sensitive data.
BitLocker also allows encryption to be used on USB sticks and other portable devices, ensuring your data stays confidential if a drive is accidentally misplaced. There are other technical improvements, too. The Direct Access tool enables seamless connections between mobile users and their office network. And it’s possible to switch your operating system between 35 different languages, which isn’t available in either the Home Premium or Professional editions.