Updated for the RTM release of Windows XP
  
With the inclusion of a new consumer-oriented version of Windows XP, there has been some confusion surrounding the differences between this product, Windows XP Home Edition, and its more upscale sibling, Windows XP Professional Edition. During a visit to Redmond in February where Windows XP Beta 2 and the new Whistler ("Luna") user interface was first unveiled, and in various meetings since then, I've been able to discuss this new Windows version with Microsoft executives and product managers. Beyond the obvious--Microsoft is targeting Home Edition at consumers and Professional at business users and power users--Group Vice President Jim Allchin said that the company was working hard to further differentiate the products. "With XP, the home version is what it is," Allchin said. "But where we're going, we've named them appropriately. In the future, this will make more sense. We will do more value add in Pro in the future."

"Divide them into managed and unmanaged environments," added John Frederiksen, the General Manager of the PC Experience Solution Group, noting that some smaller businesses would probably install Home Edition regardless of the target marketing. "Some small businesses have administrators, some don?t. Home Edition is not a managed OS. It's optimized for that consumer market. A lot of the OEM PCs marketed to consumers are bought by small businesses. In terms of naming, we wanted to continue the Professional name. For the consumer product, we tested the name Windows Me again, the year names, like Windows 2002, and a lot of other stuff. But Home Edition tested the best. The feedback said that Home Edition suggested it was customized for the home, which it was. We feel like the name reflects its purpose."

Windows XP Home Edition Overview
Windows XP Home Edition includes a number of enhancements over Windows 2000 Professional. These include:

  • Improved software (application) and hardware compatibility
  • Simplified security
  • Simplified log-on featuring new "welcome" screen
  • Fast user switching
  • A new user interface featuring context-sensitive, task-oriented Web views
  • Enhanced support for digital media (movies, pictures, music)
  • DirectX 8.1 multimedia libraries for gaming
Professional Edition: Superset of Home Edition
At its most basic level, XP Professional is a business- and power-user oriented superset of Home Edition. Because this orientation, it includes features that wouldn't be appropriate, or would be too complex, for the typical home user. The most obvious difference is security, which is vastly simplified in Home Edition. Each interactive user in XP Home is assumed to be a member of the Owners local group, which is the Windows XP equivalent of the Windows 2000 Administrator account: This means that anyone who logs on to a Home Edition machine has full control. Likewise, the Backup Operators, Power Users, and Replicator groups from Windows 2000/XP Pro are missing from Home Edition, and a new group, called Restricted Users, is added. Hidden administrative shares (C$, etc.) are also unavailable in Home Edition.

"Professional Edition is a strict superset of Home Edition," confirmed Chris Jones, Vice President of the Windows Client Group. "Everything you can do in Home Edition, you can do in Pro. So we do think there are home users who will buy Pro." Jones' distinction is a good one: With Windows XP, the Professional Edition is finally a superset of all the desktop clients that came before (Windows Me and Windows 2000 Professional) as well as of its new sibling. So when discussing the differences between the editions, it's best to simply describe those features in Pro that you can't get in Home Edition.

Pro features that aren't in Home Edition
The following features are not present in Windows XP Home Edition.

    Power user
  • Remote Desktop - All versions of Windows XP--including Home Edition--support Remote Assistance, which is an assisted support technology that allows a help desk or system administrator to remotely connect to a client desktop for troubleshooting purposes. But Only Pro supports the new Remote Desktop feature, which is a single-session version of Terminal Services with two obvious uses: Mobile professionals who need to remotely access their corporate desktop, and remote administration of clients on a network. You can access a Windows XP Remote Desktop from any OS that supports a Terminal Services client (such as Windows 98 and, interestingly XP Home). XP Home can act as the client in a Remote Desktop session; only Pro can be the server.
  • Multi-processor support - Windows XP Pro supports up to two microprocessors, while Home Edition supports only one.
  • Automated System Recovery (ASR) - In a somewhat controversial move, Microsoft has removed the Backup utility from the default Windows XP Home Edition, though it is available as an optional installation if you can find it on the CD-ROM (hint: it's in the /valueadd folder). The reason for this the integration of Microsoft's new Automated System Recovery (ASR) tool into Backup. In Pro, ASR will help recover a system from a catastrophic error, such as one that renders the system unbootable. ASR-enabled backups are triggerable from XP Setup, allowing you to return your system to its previous state, even if the hard drive dies and has to be replaced. Unlike consumer-oriented features such as System Restore, ASR is not automatic: It must manually be enabled from within the Backup utility in Windows XP Pro. In any event, while there is a Backup utility available for Home Edition, you cannot use ASR, even though mentions of this feature still exist in the UI. Confusing? Yes. But it's better than no Backup at all, which was the original plan.
  • Dynamic Disk Support - Windows XP Professional (like its Windows 2000 equivalent) supports dynamic disks, but Home Edition does not (instead, HE supports only the standard Simple Disk type). Dynamic disks are not usable with any OS other than Windows 2000 or Windows XP Pro, and they cannot be used on portable computers. Likewise, Home Edition does not include the Logical Disk Manager.
  • Fax - Home Edition has no integrated fax functionality out of the box, though it is an option you can install from the XP Home CD.
  • Internet Information Services/Personal Web Server - Home Edition does not include the IIS Web server 5.1 software found in Pro.
    Security
  • Encrypting File System - Windows XP Professional supports the Encrypting File System (EFS), which allows you encrypt individual files or folders for local security (EFS is not enabled over a network). EFS-protected files and folders allows users to protect sensitive documents from other users.
  • File-level access control - Any user with Administrator privileges can limit access to certain network resources, such as servers, directories, and files, using access control lists. Only Windows XP Professional supports file-level access control, mostly because this feature is typically implemented through Group Policy Objects, which are also not available in Home Edition.
  • "C2" certification - Microsoft will attempt to have Windows XP Professional certified with the "C2" security designation, a largely irrelevant status, but one which will not be afforded to Home Edition.
    Management
  • Domain membership - Home Edition cannot be used to logon to an Active Directory domain. For obvious reasons, the Domain Wizard is also missing in Home Edition.
  • Group Policy - Since Home Edition cannot be used to logon to an Active Directory domain, Group Policy--whereby applications, network resources, and operating systems are administered for domain users--is not supported either.
  • IntelliMirror - Microsoft lumps a wide range of semi-related change and configuration management technologies under the IntelliMirror umbrella, and none of these features are supported in the consumer oriented Home Edition. IntelliMirror capabilities include user data management; centrally-managed software installation, repair, updating, and removal; user settings management; and Remote Installation Services (RIS), which allows administrators to remotely install the OS on client systems.
  • Roaming profiles - This feature allows users to logon to any computer in an Active Directory network and automatically receive their customized settings. It is not available in Home Edition, which cannot logon to an Active Directory domain.
    Corporate deployment
  • Multi-language support - Only Windows XP Professional will ship in a Multi-Language version or support multiple languages in a single install.
  • Sysprep support - Windows XP Pro will support the System Preparation (Sysprep) utility, while Home Edition will not.
  • RIS support - See the IntelliMirror heading in the previous section; Home Edition does not support RIS deployments.
    64-bit Edition
  • Microsoft is shipping a 64-bit version of Windows XP for Intel Itanium systems that mirrors the Professional Edition feature-set.
    Networking features
    The following networking features are not included in Home Edition:
  • The user interface for IPSecurity (IPSec)
  • SNMP
  • Simple TCP/IP services
  • SAP Agent
  • Client Service for NetWare
  • Network Monitor
  • Multiple Roaming feature
    User interface features
    Windows XP Home Edition has some different default settings that affect the user interface. For example, Guest logon is on by default in Home, but off in Pro. The Address bar in Explorer windows is on in Pro by default, but off in Home. During the beta period, Microsoft had intended to use a business-oriented shell theme ("Professional") by default in Pro and the "Luna" consumer theme in Home Edition. But feedback from corporate users suggested that everyone liked the consumer-oriented Luna theme better, and development of the Professional theme was cancelled. Other user interface features that are present in Pro but not Home include:
  • Client-side caching
  • Administrative Tools option on the Start menu (a subset of the Admin tools are still present in Home, however).
It's also worth mentioning that Home Edition will support upgrades from Windows 98, 98 SE, and Millennium Edition (Me), but not from Windows 95, NT 4.0 Workstation, or Windows 2000 Professional. You can upgrade from Windows 98, 98 SE, Millennium Edition (Me), Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, or Windows 2000 Professional to Windows XP Professional. See my article on What to Expect from Windows XP for more information.

Deciding which edition to buy is simple: Peruse the above list and decide whether you can live without any of these features. If you can't, then you're going to want to get Professional. Otherwise, save $100 and get Home Edition. Note that Microsoft is offering a less-expensive Professional "Step-Up" upgrade for Home users that wish to move to XP Pro.