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Windows 7, XP or Vista: which OS is best

Guide to choosing a Windows operating system

With three versions of Windows soon to be sharing the market, PC Advisor helps you decide which one to choose.

Windows 7's six editions

If you thought Vista's multiple versions were confusing, prepare to be bamboozled all over again by Windows 7. Microsoft has said it will offer six versions of the OS, although the choice for most people will simply be between Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Home Premium.

Microsoft's general manager for Windows, Mike Ybarra, has said that each version of Windows 7 will be a ‘superset' of another - in much the same way that Windows Media Center Edition and Windows Tablet PC Edition were supersets of Windows XP Home Pro and Windows XP Business respectively. However, in contrast to XP, if you start off with a business version of Windows 7 and decide you'd like the home entertainment elements provided by Windows Media Player, you can get them; you don't forfeit anything by choosing one avenue rather than another.

Microsoft describes Home Premium as the natural choice for consumers. "It gives them a full-function PC experience and a visually rich environment in everything from the way they experience entertainment to the way they connect their devices," Microsoft proclaims on its press site.

The firm says Windows 7 Professional, meanwhile, is designed for use in small and medium-sized businesses and will be a natural progression from Windows Vista Business. However, Microsoft also suggests that this version of the OS will be suitable for home users who have some business demands, citing the example of "an IT-managed or business environment where security and productivity are critical".

This suggests the home-user version won't be all that smart at security - but we could be reading too much between the lines. Perhaps Microsoft is just trying to drum up customers for the Business version.

There will be four other editions: Enterprise, the version big businesses are encouraged to choose; Home Basic, to be offered only in emerging markets where PC specs are likely to be lower; Starter, available worldwide as a preinstalled OS on particular types of hardware; and Ultimate.

Both the Enterprise and Ultimate versions will include the BitLocker security tool, but Microsoft has said it has no plans to offer Ultimate Extra applications with Windows 7 - something it announced for Vista Ultimate but failed to make much of. Instead, Ultimate will simply be the version of Windows 7 for technology enthusiasts who want it all.

See also: Windows 7 video guide

Which version is right for you?

Despite Microsoft's assurances that there are only two real versions of Windows 7 to worry about, you'll want to know how all six differ. As with Vista, we'd caution you against Home Basic, even if you're attacted by the low price. Starter Edition, meanwhile, sounds as though it will be a suitable replacement for Windows XP Home on netbooks and machines with limited specifications.

Windows 7 Starter Edition will primarily be targeted at emerging markets. It will not support the Aero interface and will be able to run only three applications simultaneously. However, it will have the large docked items arrayed along the improved Taskbar, and this will be customisable. You'll also be able to include a Starter Edition PC or laptop in a Homegroup for media and resource sharing.

For most consumers, Home Premium will be the best choice of Windows 7 edition. It will support proper networking, rather than simply allowing you to join a Homegroup. It will support the Aero interface, so you can flick between different screens depending on the sort of tasks you're currently performing, and will allow you to run numerous apps at once, complete with live updates. Microsoft won't limit the number of apps that can run simultaneously; instead, the processor and available memory will govern this.

Touchscreen applications will be usable with Windows 7 Home Premium, at which point those enlarged icons at the bottom of the screen will come into their own. You'll be able to select an item with your finger and flick it up to the top of the desktop to open it to full-screen - far less fiddly than the minimise/maximise options in XP and Vista. Having introduced touch-sensitive support, it makes sense that Microsoft has boosted the handwriting-recognition features for Home Premium users too.

Our understanding, however, is that the multitouch features of this version of Windows 7 won't carry through to the Professional Edition - a contrast with Windows XP, which had a dedicated Tablet PC Edition aimed at the education market as well as being primed for creative, legal and industrial applications.

Business users plumping for Windows 7 Professional will be able to join managed office networks regulated by their domain and physical location, will be able to automatically back up over a network and be able to print securely over it. Encryption will also be offered as part of the OS.

The top-end versions of Windows 7 will be the Enterprise and Ultimate versions. These will include the core elements of the other flavours of Windows 7, but also include BitLocker hardware encryption. The Enterprise edition will offer DirectAccess remote access features and will enable network administrators to restrict client PCs' ability to install applications using a feature known as AppLocker.

Since Microsoft has yet to do more than tease potential customers with the public beta download and hasn't announced a precise timescale for launch, we can only speculate about Windows 7's price tag. However, Microsoft has indicated it's likely to be in line with current pricing for Vista.

NEXT PAGE: netbooks, the next battle ground

  1. Guide to choosing a Windows operating system
  2. Windows XP forever
  3. The future of Windows XP
  4. Windows Vista: could do better
  5. Is Windows 7 the answer?
  6. Windows 7: The solution?
  7. Windows 7's six editions
  8. The new battleground: netbooks
  9. Windows 7 specs checks

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