The Many Faces of Windows

It has been a poorly kept secret that Microsoft has been intending to stratify its Windows offerings, in order to best reach a price point and feature set that fits each market. We already saw a portion of this with the initial launch of Windows XP, which was split into two versions: XP Home for home computer use, and XP Professional for business/office/workstation use. Since then, Microsoft has further augmented that lineup with XP Starter Edition for emerging markets, an HTPC-oriented version with XP Media Center Edition, and of course their enterprise server software Windows Server 2003.

With Vista, Microsoft will continue this trend and will be designing 6 separate versions of Vista: Starter, Business, Enterprise, Home Basic, Home Premium, and Ultimate. As Starter will only be available in select countries, most users will have a choice among the other 5 versions of Vista, which are in turn broken into two categories based on the target user audience and features.

Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, and Ultimate are targeted at home users, separated by cost and features. While Microsoft already has a version of Windows for emerging markets, Home Basic, the 2nd most stripped down version of Vista, will also include a number of handicaps like: not supporting the eye-candy or productivity features of the new Aero interface, limited communication abilities, and an interesting 8GB/1 physical processor cap that may become an issue in a couple of years. While Microsoft has compared this to XP Home and targeted it towards households with only one computer, under their current proposal it'll likely end up too limiting for many users, but it will also be the cheapest version of Windows possible.

Home Premium in turn will be the first consumer version of Windows to come loaded with a more realistically complete feature set, comparable to XP Media Center edition. Home Premium will include full Aero interface functionality, the Media Center application, video authoring applications, an increased RAM cap of 16GB, and better computer networking abilities that will only lack certain business features. It will also still only support a single physical processor (i.e. one socket), though with quad core chips launching next year it's questionable how many people will really need more than that.

Last and not least rounding out the consumer side of Windows will be the nebulous Windows Vista Ultimate, which Microsoft has pitched as the version of Windows that includes everything from both the consumer and business categories. At this point Microsoft hasn't made it clear what is really going to separate Ultimate from some of the other versions of Vista, so it's likely there will be some changes before it ships. So far on top of including all the Vista features from both sides (including the business side's processor and memory support), Ultimate will include the System Assessment Tool, which Microsoft is pitching as a way to predict computer performance for use in adjusting game settings.

Moving over to the business side, Vista Business and Enterprise will be the successors to XP Professional. Business is almost exactly like XP Professional as we know it now, coming with most of Vista's features from both the business and consumer sides. As the only consumer features lacking at this point are the video authority and Media Center applications, it seems likely that Business will end up being the OS of choice for many computer enthusiasts. This is something Microsoft wants to avoid, as they want enthusiasts to use the more feature packed (and expensive) Ultimate edition, so it's not impossible that the feature set may change before Vista launches.

Last on the business side is Enterprise edition, which is only intended for large businesses, and as the successor to XP Professional corporate edition it will only be available to volume license key holders, putting it out of the hands of individuals (who will need to purchase Ultimate edition to get Enterprise's features). New to Enterprise will be a built-in version of VirtualPC and an enhanced encryption ability that will be able to encrypt the entire OS instead of only user folders.

Still with us? On top of the 6 versions of Vista, Microsoft is also taking the 64-bit push very seriously with Vista, as enthusiasts are only a year or so away from reaching the 4GB RAM limit of IA-32. As a result, all versions of Vista except for Starter will also come in a 64-bit version signified by the x64 moniker (versus x86 for the 32-bit version), with both versions planned to be included with each copy of Windows at this time. Our beta version of Vista came on two separate DVDs, one for x86 and one for x64, but we're not sure at this point if Microsoft is going to package Vista in a dual-layer DVD with an installer that can pick the right version, or if it will continue to come on separate discs. It's also worth noting that Vista will choose which version of itself to install based on the product key used, as now all versions (for x64 and x86) will use the same installation media, which will be a relief for doing reinstalls. Vista will also be upgradeable; Microsoft is planning on allowing users to purchase updates over the internet to allow them to upgrade from Home Basic to Home Premium, for example. Since there's now a common media, users will only need to put the installation disc back into let the unlocked features install.

Finally, Microsoft will still be shipping stripped down versions of Windows for the European market that lack the Windows Media Player, with versions of both Business and Home Basic being available. Since these will also apparently come in x86 and x64 versions, this brings the total number of unique versions of Vista up to 15. At present, there is no successor to Windows Server 2003, but that will probably become available in time.

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  • dev0lution - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    I'd happily boot into Vista everyday if all of my hardware devices would work. Not MS's fault, but rather my fault for buying a smaller manufacturer's product who has yet to post even beta drivers.

    In combination with Office 207 Beta2 and IE 7, Vista x86 has run fine and rather stable for me. It does tend to eat up a bit of memory, but I should probably add another GB anyhow. If I could just solve a couple app related problems and get Media Center (and MC remote) to change the channel on my set top box, I wouldn't be running from my MCE disk much at all anymore.

    I kind of like the new layout and explorer...
  • RogueSpear - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    I've had been using Vista on one of my computers until shortly after the Beta 2 was released for public consumption. Once I saw that there was no appreciable improvements in that release, I finally decided to revert back to the relative comfort and superior performance of XP. First off, I have nightmares when I think of the mass confusion that will ensue among the mass of computer neophytes that are just now getting over the adjustment from moving off of 98/ME to XP. These will be trying days for help desk staff and even those are the "computer guy" in their family.

    More importantly, changes that are allegedly substantial, seem to me more cosmetic than anything. Yes, I realize that there are a lot of serious changes under the hood, but the benefits you can see and touch appear very superficial at best. This seems like an extreme makeover in an attempt to get people signed up for even more pervasive and hideous DRM. I know I'm living in the past, but I'll always be nostalgic for the days when my computer was actually my computer and the software/media I paid for were mine to use as I saw fit.
  • Pirks - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    I noticed this sentence: "As currently implemented, UAC surpasses Tiger's security features by giving more information about what application is requesting privilege escalation" Could you please elaborate a little on what "more information" exactly Vista provides in UAC dialogs that Tiger does NOT provide?

    From my experience Tiger gives the same information, I probably misunderstood you on that, could you please explain in more detail?
  • johnsonx - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link


    Our beta version of Vista came on two separate DVDs, one for x86 and one for x64, but we're not sure at this point if Microsoft is going to package Vista in a dual-layer DVD with an installer that can pick the right version, or if it will continue to come on separate discs. It's also worth noting that Vista will choose which version of itself to install based on the product key used, as now all versions (for x64 and x86) will use the same installation media, which will be a relief for doing reinstalls.

    Ok, these two sentences seem contradictory. First you say you don't know if 32-bit and 64-bit versions will come on the same disc with an installer that can pick correctly, then in the next sentence you say the installer will pick based on product key because both versions will use the same install media.

    So which is it, or there there something I'm not getting?
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    There's something you're not getting. A disc can install any variation of Vista(e.g. 1 disc can install Home Basic x86, Home Premium x86, Ultimate x86, etc); it can only install that bit-version of Vista however.
  • DerekWilson - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    it is difficult to say ... i think three different editors mucked around with that sentence :-)

    to try a different angle, both of these are true statements:

    1) the x86 disk can install any x86 version of vista

    2) the x64 disk can install any x64 version of vista
  • dhei - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    When you can, do a test to see how well they redid it please. Someone told me this would be noticable on those with broadband easily, not just LAN or network tests. Im really intrested in this aspect, though not sure how to really test it.

    Did you try a LAN benchmark vs winxp to see if any diffrence?
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    We did not do that, it was already a 12k word article + the time to run the benchmarks we did use. We'll be taking a much heavier look at performance once we have a final version of Vista to look at.
  • Pirks - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    and read this while you're at it:">

    You can minimize the risk of a network service being used to attack your machine by using the firewall built into Mac OS X. Called ipfw, it can prevent potential attackers from reaching these services. As of Mac OS X 10.2, Apple has included a simple GUI for configuring ipfw. The GUI is good for adding simple rules to your machine; more complex rules will require you to use either the command line tools for manipulating the firewall, or a third-party GUI that has more features.

    Ryan, do you know what BSD ipfw is? It blows any XP firewall to ashes, Vista is only pathetic attempt to get to its level (well hopefully MS will get something similar in Vista, I really hope they do)

    Also read this:">

    That's another GUI to configure ipfw in OSX.

    Otherwise an excellent article, I'm impatiently wait for your review of the final Vista release, but please don't do such stupid mistakes again, Mac boys will hack and slash you for that ;-)

    "it's time for a full featured firewall for Windows and Mac OS X alike, and only the former has it" - what a funny lie :-) Please read about OSX ipfw (I gave you a couple of links) and fix it ASAP. Thanks.
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    I'm aware of IPFW, and what it can do(and boy is it nice!). But this is a competition among what the two OS's can do on their own, without significant intervention from the user. Out of the box, Vista's firewall is a full-featured firewall that can block inbound and outbound connections. Tiger's firewall can't do the latter, and in the age of spyware(and as you saw in our spyware test), it's sometimes the last thing keeping spyware and other malware from breaking out.

    Tiger may not have significant malware problems at this point, but there's no good reason why it(and more so Leopard) shouldn't have outbound protection too.

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