From Starter to Ultimate: What's really in each Windows 7 Edition?

Posted by Ed Bott @ 11:07 pm

Windows 7 Ultimate/Enterprise

As I mentioned earlier, Windows Vista Ultimate was probably the biggest marketing disaster to come out of the Windows Vista launch—and that’s not an enviable list to be on top of. So it’s not surprising that Microsoft is downplaying the Ultimate edition for consumers. In reality, most advanced Windows users will find everything they need in Windows 7 Professional.

The real target for this edition is enterprise customers, who get the same edition under a different name. Windows 7 Ultimate will be sold in retail channels, as boxed software and on new PCs; Windows 7 Enterprise is available to customers who purchase volume licenses. Both editions are functionally identical and include all features in Windows 7 Professional. In addition, you get these extra features:

BitLocker encryption: This feature has been around since Vista. BitLocker drive encryption allows an entire drive to be encrypted, protecting its contents from unauthorized access if the computer is lost or stolen. Windows 7 setup makes it easier to enable this encryption, because it automatically creates the required system partition as part of a clean installation. BitLocker To Go is a brand-new feature in Windows 7 that allows encryption of flash drives so that sensitive data isn’t at risk if they’re lost or stolen. (I wrote about BitLocker To Go last month as part of my What to expect from Windows 7 feature.)

Boot from VHD: Every Windows 7 edition (even Starter) allows you to create and mount a Virtual Hard Drive (VHD) file using the built-in Disk Management tool. The Ultimate and Enterprise editions add the capability to boot from a VHD. Before you get too excited by this feature, try to imagine what you might use it for. Give up? Yeah, me too. Virtually every scenario in which this capability might come in handy can be handled just as easily using a traditional virtualization solution. This is a platform feature that will be useful someday. But not yet.

Language packs: If you check Windows Update right now using the RC version of Windows 7 Ultimate, you’ll find more than 30 language packs waiting for you. These packs change the Windows 7 interface completely, allowing you to display menus, dialog boxes, and other elements in a language other than the base language your copy of Windows uses. If you use a lesser edition of Windows 7, you can always install a language input pack, which translates about 80% of the Windows interface but leaves the remaining 20% in the base language. For multilingual Windows users, this could be a big deal.

Enterprise features: If your network includes a server running Windows Server 2008 R2, you can take advantage of a couple of interesting new features that only work in combination with Windows 7. BrancheCache reportedly increases network responsiveness of applications and is designed for scenarios where an application is running on a server in the main office and workers in a branch office have to access it over a slow link. DirectAccess provides secure connections (without a VPN) between a client PC running Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. Everyone I’ve talked to who has used this feature raves about it.

Location-aware printing: You have a notebook PC that’s joined to a domain at work. When you come home, you want to connect to local resources. The purpose of this feature is to ensure that you find the correct printer based on your location. (It would be a shame to realize that you’ve just printed a resume and cover letter to a potential new employer on a shared printer back at the office where you currently work, wouldn’t it?)

Security and Reliability: The most important addition here is a feature called AppLocker, which enables administrators of enterprise networks to create an authorized list of programs that users can install and run. You certainly wouldn’t want to try this sort of aggressive whitelisting on your own PC, but in a high-security, tightly managed enterprise, it’s a good way to make sure untrusted code never makes it onto a networked PC.