Windows 7: Choosing the Right Version

In case you missed it, Windows 7 is available now. October 22nd was marked with a moderate amount of hoopla to introduce the new flagship operating system. Now, users are faced with the task of not only deciding whether or not to upgrade, but of choosing which of the many variations of Windows 7 to install.

Microsoft has 6 different versions of Windows 7 available: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise. The Windows 7 Starter version is aimed primarily at low-end netbook devices, and the Windows Home Basic version is only available in emerging markets, so we can rule those two out right away.

Microsoft thinks that it is doing you a favor by essentially making Windows Home Premium the de facto version. A quick browse through the systems available from Best Buy or Amazon shows that almost every system available now comes pre-installed with Windows Home Premium, with a significant percentage being the 64-bit version of Windows Home Premium.

Windows Home Premium is OK, but it lacks key features. Microsoft has this habit of adding all kinds of eye candy and multimedia bells and whistles to the home version, but leaving out important security features and customization capabilities. I chalk it up to an effort to provide a dummy-proof entertainment system and be more like Apple, but the result is that consumers get an inferior version of Windows that doesn't come close to the Mac OS X experience.

Microsoft isn't Apple and Windows isn't Mac. If Microsoft focused more on providing the best version of Windows for consumers and less on trying to be cool or dummy proof, it would be doing itself and you both a favor.

Microsoft aims the cream of the crop of the security features at enterprise customers. Granted, they need them as well, but enterprises tend to have IT administrators and technical support personnel who install, manage, and oversee firewall and antivirus products, monitor the network for outbreaks, and provide security remediation and cleanup when necessary. Home users don't have those resources so they need the operating system to be as secure as possible by default.

Home users should have Windows 7 Ultimate in order to have the full range of Windows 7 features and capabilities. Laptop users in particular should upgrade to Windows 7 Ultimate so they can take advantage of BitLocker Disk Encryption to protect the data on the laptop in the event that it is lost or stolen.

Small businesses are more or less ignored by Microsoft. They are not an enterprise or a consumer. Microsoft intends the Windows 7 Professional version for small and medium business customers. Windows 7 Professional has some enhancements such as the ability to join a Windows network domain, but still lacks key features like BitLocker, as well as the enterprise capabilities like DirectAccess and Branch Cache.

Granted, small and medium business customers need to have a Windows Server 2008 domain environment to take advantage of these advanced Windows 7 features, but it is worth it for organizations with remote and roaming workers or branch locations. To gain access to these features, I suggest small and medium businesses also invest in Windows 7 Ultimate.

There you have it. If I were calling the shots at Microsoft we could instantly narrow the field down to three options: Windows 7 Starter for netbooks, Windows 7 Enterprise for large corporate customers, and Windows 7 Ultimate for everyone else.

If you are going to spend the time and money to upgrade to Windows 7, you may as well invest a little extra and get the version that has all of the features, and capabilities rather than choosing one with limited functionality. You'll thank me later.

Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com .

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