There's only one version of Windows 8 that tech-savvy consumers should select.
Microsoft has revealed how many versions of its latest operating system will be shipped – Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT (which is designed to run on ARM hardware). So far so simple.
There is, however, also a mystery fourth version for customers on Software Assurance licensing agreements, which Microsoft has mentioned only in passing – Windows 8 Enterprise. And we're not even going to mention Windows Server 8. Despite the slimmed-down range, many will still be wondering which edition of Windows 8 they should they opt for. (See also: Windows 8: the complete guide.) See also: How to install Windows 8.
Windows 8: Which version should you use?
The good news is that Microsoft has made things a lot easier. With Windows 7, customers have to wade through the features and capabilities of seven different versions in order to find the one that best meets their needs. With Windows 8, Microsoft has in essence narrowed the options down to consumer and business. There's Windows 8 for consumers, and Windows 8 Pro for business use. Period.
Yes, there's also Windows RT and Windows 8 Enterprise, but those are special cases for niche scenarios. Indeed, the first option can't actually be purchased – it will simply come pre-installed on ARM-based tablets or PCs. It can't join a Microsoft network domain or run traditional Windows software, and appears to be about as close to Windows 8 as Windows Phone or the Xbox 360, so it barely even matters in the decision-making process. It certainly doesn't count if you are looking to upgrade an existing Windows 7 or Windows Vista PC or laptop.
The Enterprise edition is a wild card. In a blog post, Microsoft explained that: “Windows 8 Enterprise includes all the features of Windows 8 Pro plus features for IT organizations that enable PC management and deployment, advanced security, virtualization, new mobility scenarios, and much more.” We tried to get some clarification on the specific differences between Windows 8 Pro and Enterprise, but at the time of going to press no extra details were available. Depending on the features included with Windows 8 Enterprise, it might make a compelling case for some businesses to switch to Software Assurance licensing to be able to take advantage of them.
Windows 8 vs Windows 8 Pro
For most of us, the choice boils down to only two options, though, the decision is easy. Get Windows 8 Pro. Technology journalist Harry McCracken recently stated in his Techland article for Time magazine: "I'm sure that some will insist that Microsoft should simply sell the best version, as Apple does with OS X – but I'm not that curmudgeonly."
Well we are. We always maintained with Windows 7 that Microsoft should have cut through all the nonsense and just sold Windows 7 Ultimate, and our feelings haven't changed with the Windows 8 versions.
Your grandmother, or your cousin may not need some higher-end Windows 8 Pro features such as the ability to join a network domain or use Group Policy. However, Microsoft has a habit of leaving out of the consumer version crucial capabilities – especially security features. With Windows 8 Pro, you get BitLocker and BitLocker-to-Go encryption, and Encrypted File System (EFS) to be able to encrypt and protect your data from unauthorised access. Windows 8 Pro also enables you to boot straight from a VHD which could come in handy.
Will everyone need these features? No, but enough will. It just makes sense to get the version that at least gives you the option if you need it rather than choosing the stripped down version lacking key features.
Oh, and if you already have Windows 7 Ultimate or Windows 7 Professional, the decision has been made for you. The only upgrade path is to Windows 8 Pro.