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

Posted by Ed Bott @ 11:07 pm

Over the course of its Windows 7 development effort, Microsoft has been incredibly controlled about releasing details, pursuing an agonizingly deliberate disclosure plan. This week, they finally announced the official release dates: RTM next month, on sale beginning October 22. The last remaining pieces of the puzzle? There’s the price list, of course, which I don’t think will be revealed publicly until close to the on-sale dates. The other missing detail is the exact breakdown of features in each edition.

I’ve been pestering contacts at Microsoft for an official features list for months, and they’ve politely but persistently refused every one of my requests. So, as part of the research for Windows 7 Inside Out, I did the work myself. I installed copies of each Windows 7 edition from the Release Candidate (build 7100) code on a single machine, resulting in a five-way multiboot system. Then I tallied up which features were in each edition, trying out each one to see if I could identify unexpected behavior.

When I did this exercise for Windows Vista more than three years ago, I created tables to highlight the differences between editions. This time around, I decided that producing a monster feature table is the wrong way to present this information. Instead, in this post I’ve created profiles for each edition and given each one its own page. I start with a master list of features common to all editions, followed by high-level feature lists that describe the unique features added with each upgrade level.

With Windows 7, Microsoft has actually put together a basic feature set that makes sense across the board with a consistent upgrade strategy to move between versions based on your requirements and your budget. That is a first for the company and a huge improvement over Microsoft’s official Windows Vista feature list, which I once described as “practically incomprehensible … like a graduate thesis from the Rube Goldberg School of Business”. Every edition of Windows 7 contains all features of the previous edition, eliminating artificial divisions between consumer and business features. That makes the Anytime Upgrade strategy very clean and easy.

One caution in reading this post: Microsoft has already made at least one major change from the Windows 7 RC, dropping the three-app limit from Windows Starter. It’s possible they’ll make other changes between now and RTM, so this list is subject to change.

Here’s an executive summary, with links to more detailed pages.

Common features

Windows 7 offers a fairly broad set of features across the board, with a lineup that is far more consistent than in Windows Vista or Windows XP. This page contains a list of features you can count on being able to use in every edition.

Windows 7 Starter and Home Basic

Previously, Starter edition was known as “the one that wouldn’t let you use more than three apps at a time.” Fortunately, Microsoft reversed course on that one, and the final version of Windows 7 Starter should actually be capable of performing just about any Windows task. As long as you don’t want to watch a DVD or change your desktop background. Home Basic is the other “non-premium” edition, available only in emerging markets and not in the U.S., Europe, and other developed nations. It’s a little more interesting graphically than Starter, but lacks what Microsoft considers premium features like Windows Media Center.

Windows 7 Home Premium

This is the entry-level edition for most consumers. It has the full Aero interface, Windows Media Center, and a few interesting surprises depending on your hardware.

Windows 7 Professional

After a brief name change (to Business edition) in the Vista era, the preferred upgrade for businesses and enthusiasts returns to its roots, name-wise. The feature set is long and interesting, with the ability to run a Remote Desktop server, encrypt files, make network folders available offline, and join a Windows domain. Oh, and did I mention a licensed virtual copy of Windows XP for those one or two pesky legacy apps?

Windows 7 Ultimate/Enterprise

Two different names for essentially the same product. In the retail channel, Ultimate edition was perhaps the biggest marketing fiasco for Windows Vista, which is maybe why it’s being downplayed here. The biggest selling point is BitLocker disk encryption, which now works on USB flash drives as well. Enterprise edition is the same product, packaged separately for volume license customers, who also get access to the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack.

Next: Which features are in every edition? –>

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