Some versions of Windows 7 worth it, others not

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

With the arrival of Windows 7’s release to manufacturing (RTM) imminent, my inbox is teeming with questions about the next version of every PC user’s favorite whipping boy.

You need to make a few key decisions to ensure that you pick the Windows 7 version that best meets your needs.

It’s safe to say the Vista version of Windows didn’t set the world on fire, though it inflamed more than a few PC users. It’s putting it politely to say there’s pent-up demand for Vista’s successor, Windows 7.

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Before you can determine which of the many versions of Win7 is right for your computing situation, however, you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of each option.

I’ve recently given you more than one heads-up on what to look for. My May 14 Top Story described two important new features of Windows 7: Homegroups and Libraries. My June 4 article discussed the limitations imposed by the Win7 Starter Edition. How to remove Internet Explorer from Windows 7 was the topic of my June 18 Woody’s Windows column. Finally, my July 2 column covered the deep discounts that Microsoft was offering on Windows 7 upgrades.

If you know the key decision points, it’ll take you just a few minutes to determine which version of Windows 7 is right for you.

One caveat is in order: Nobody who has seen the final “gold code” version of Windows 7 is talking about it. Nor has anyone in a position to discuss it publicly laid eyes on a final upgrade version of Win7. What follows is based on my personal experience with the latest leaked builds.

Let’s start with the Win7 versions that we can generally reject without much forethought at all:
  • Starter Edition comes preinstalled only on netbooks that meet certain restrictions. It has many user-interface limitations — as befits its rock-bottom price, which is intended to reduce the list price of new netbooks running Windows.

    Starter won’t play DVD movies. Hardware makers, however, will undoubtedly bundle DVD software such as PowerDVD or WinDVD with their optical drives. As an alternative, you could install the highly acclaimed free VLC media player and play movies till the cows come bungee-jumping home. You’ll find a download link for the program on the VideoLAN site.

    Bottom line: Starter works fine if you’re on a budget. Before you choose that bare-bones edition, however, consider that Win7 Home Premium may be available on a netbook for not much more money than you’d pay for Starter.

    UPDATE 2009-11-19: In the Nov. 19 Top Story, Woody Leonhard explains how to change the desktop wallpaper in Windows 7 Starter Edition for netbooks.

  • Ultimate Edition is for people who have way too much money tearing a hole in their pockets. Avoid this version unless you desperately need the ability to scramble all the data on your hard drive (using MS’s proprietary BitLocker) or you want to be able to change your copy of Windows so all of the menus, help files, dialog boxes, and so on appear in a different language (multilanguage support).

    Actually, Ultimate is so expensive, it may be cheaper to buy a second copy of Windows 7 Home Premium in the second language you wish to use and dual-boot between the two versions.
  • The big decision is Win7 Home Premium vs. Pro

    That brings us to the first of our two key purchase questions: Can you live with Windows 7 Home Premium, or do you really need the added features of Windows 7 Professional? It boils down to whether you’re willing to pay the extra money for Professional’s handful of extras.

    The following items are the things you can do in Windows 7 Pro that you can’t do in Windows 7 Home Premium:
    • Join a domain. If your PC needs to participate in an organization’s “domain” network, you need Win7 Pro or Ultimate.

    • Back up to a network drive. Both Starter and Home Premium have fully functional backup and restore programs that run automatically with very little fuss. These two versions also maintain “shadow copies” or previous versions of files — snapshots typically taken once a day.

      Windows 7 Pro adds the ability to store backups on your network. With Home Premium, you can store backups only on local drives, including removable drives. Of course, if you have Windows Home Server or some other form of network-based copying, you’re already covered for remote backup.

    • Act as a Remote Desktop puppet. Every recent version of Windows includes the ability to control another PC via a feature called Remote Desktop. But to be able to have your PC be controlled — if you want it to act as a puppet, with another PC pulling the strings — it must be running a Pro or Ultimate release.

      There are several free or low-cost services — notably LogMeIn Free and GoToMyPC — that pull off the same remote-access trick, and they don’t require a Pro or Ultimate version of Windows.

    • Sync files offline. Windows 7 Pro’s built-in file synchronizer lets you designate a file or folder on another networked computer as being “offline.” That automatically sets up caching and updating, so the file(s) are updated every time you reconnect your computer to the network.

      As you might imagine, there are many ways to sync files and folders, including Microsoft’s own free SyncToy, which you can get from Microsoft’s download page. SyncToy has many more features than Windows 7’s built-in file syncher but doesn’t work as easily.

    • Run in Windows XP Mode. In theory, this feature lets you run Windows XP programs — unaltered — on a Windows 7 Pro PC. This version includes a fully licensed copy of Windows XP and Windows Virtual PC.

      In my July 2 column, I described Win7’s XP Mode as a pig in a pre-release poke. If you really need to run an XP virtual machine, get the free VMware Player, which you’ll find on the VMware site, and use an old retail copy of XP.

    • Encrypt files and connect to projectors. Among the other quasi-notable features in Windows 7 Pro are two that may interest you. The Encrypting File System offers strong encryption of files and folders, although many people use the encryption techniques already found in applications such as Word and Excel.

      If you commonly give presentations, Win7 Pro lets you connect quickly to a network projector (by pressing WindowsKey+P) and automatically disable screensavers and IM clients for the duration of a presentation. Ho-hum.
    If you can look at the above list of features and say, “meh,” then Windows 7 Home Premium is for you.

    Make the move from 32-bit Vista to 64-bit Win7

    A far more-pertinent question for many current Vista users is whether they should upgrade to the 32-bit version of Win7 or install the 64-bit version. All indications are that both the 64-bit and 32-bit versions of Windows 7 will ship on the same DVD.

    Keep in mind that if you opt for an in-place upgrade — which I recommend against — you must stick with the bittedness of the original product: an old 32-bit version of Windows will upgrade only to 32-bit Windows 7, and 64-bit only to 64-bit.

    If your system uses an Intel Core 2 Duo/AMD Athlon 64 or newer processor, you can run 64-bit. But choosing between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows has more implications than you might think.

    Yes, the 64-bit versions of Windows 7 can handle more memory — 32-bit versions top out around 3.4GB. Yes, 64-bit applications frequently run faster than their 32-bit brethren.

    But the devil’s in the drivers: many manufacturers adamantly refuse to spend the money to create 64-bit drivers for older hardware. After all, they make money by selling new hardware, and 64-bit compatibility doesn’t rate very high on the profit-center scorecard.

    Fortunately, there’s an easy way to tell whether your Vista machine and its peripherals support 64-bit versions of Windows 7. Microsoft’s Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor scans your computer and tells you whether Microsoft-approved 64-bit drivers are available for your equipment.

    Addressing readers’ Windows 7 questions

    I received dozens of questions from readers following my July 2 article about Windows 7 upgrades.

    One interesting conundrum on the minds of many future Win7 users is whether using the Windows 7 upgrade DVD to install Windows 7 invalidates your old copy of Vista or XP. While Microsoft’s End-User License Agreement certainly implies that this is indeed the case, it remains to be seen whether Microsoft will actually “turn off” the old key.

    That could become an important consideration on a dual-boot system with Windows 7 and Vista (or XP). It also raises the question of whether you can give up on Windows 7 and reinstall your old version of Vista or XP. Since we haven’t seen the upgrade version yet, there’s no way to tell for sure whether the old authorization key gets zapped. Stay tuned for details.

    Several readers complained about the lack of in-place upgrade paths for Vista Ultimate. To recap, if you have Vista Ultimate installed, you can perform an in-place upgrade only to Windows 7 Ultimate, which costs two arms and three legs. The Microsoft Store verbiage on the topic is confusing. Rest assured that the picture I painted in my July 2 column is accurate — if you have Vista Ultimate, MS supports only an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 Ultimate.

    About the only thing that’s certain is that we’re on the verge of an important new chapter in the history of Windows. Strap on your crash helmet and hold on tight!

    UPDATE 2009-11-12: In the Nov. 12 Top Story, Woody describes how to clean-install Windows 7 from the upgrade disc and also answers other reader questions about Windows 7.

    Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies — will appear on store shelves in October.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-07-16:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.