Back in 2001, life was easy: Microsoft released Windows XP in just two product editions, Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional Edition. The difference between the products was fairly obvious, and with its enhanced feature set, XP Pro was the more expensive version, as one might expect. Over time, however, Microsoft muddied the waters with a wealth of new XP product editions. There were three major versions added: Windows XP Media Center Edition (which received three major releases and one minor update between 2002 and 2005), Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (which received two major releases between 2002 and 2005), and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, which took most of XP Pro's feature set and brought it to the x64 hardware platform. Other XP versions, such as XP Embedded and XP Starter Edition, can't really be considered mainstream products.

For Windows Vista, Microsoft surveyed the market and come away with two observations. First, an experiment stratifying the Microsoft Office product line into multiple product editions, or SKUs (Stock Keeping Units, a retailing term), had proven enormously successful. Second, customers were willing to pay a bit more for premium product SKUs, such as XP Media Center Edition, that offered extra features. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Microsoft's experiences over the past few years led directly to the situation we have with Windows Vista: The company has created 6 Vista product editions, two of which can be described as premium versions. Or, if you include the so-called N and K editions (for the European Union and South Korea, respectively), there are actually 9 product editions. Or, if you count the 32-bit and x64 versions separately, there are 17 product editions. Or something.

Don't get bogged down in semantics or complicated counting exercises. With a little bit of knowledge about how these product editions break down and are sold, you can whittle the list down quite a bit very easily. Then, you can evaluate which features are available in which editions and choose the one that's right for you based on your needs.

A product edition matrix

Here's how the Windows Vista product editions break down. This chart lists each edition, which XP product editions they most closely compare to, how they are acquired, and other related information.

Vista product edition Compare with... x64 version? Type Retail price Upgrade price
Windows Vista Starter XP Starter Edition No Select countries only, with new PC purchase n/a n/a
Windows Home Basic XP Home Edition Yes Retail $199 $99.95
Windows Home Basic N XP Home Edition Yes Retail, EU only $199 $99.95
Windows Vista Home Premium XP Media Center Edition Yes Retail $239 $159
Windows Vista Business XP Professional Edition Yes Retail $299 $199
Windows Vista Business N XP Professional Edition Yes Retail $299 $199
Windows Vista Enterprise XP Professional Edition Yes Volume-license only n/a n/a
Windows Vista Ultimate n/a Yes * Retail $399 $259

* Vista Ultimate includes both 32-bit and x64 Setup DVDs. Customers who purchase retail 32-bit versions of Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, or Business can order x64 media from Microsoft for the cost of shipping and handling.

Whittling down the choices

Let's immediately cast off a few of the less desirable product editions.

Windows Vista Starter. Since Windows Vista Starter is only available in a limited number of regions and cannot be purchased at retail, we won't discuss that version here any further.

Windows Vista Home Basic N and Business N. Created to satisfy power-hungry antitrust regulators in the EU, the so-called Vista N Editions are just like their related non-N versions, but drop Windows Media Player, Windows Movie Maker, and other Windows Media-related technologies. These products have proven enormously unpopular in Europe for obvious reasons, and I expect that trend not continue. Skip them.

Windows Vista Enterprise. A new offering, Windows Vista Enterprise is available only to Microsoft's Software Assurance (SA) customers via volume licensing. From a functional standpoint, it is very similar to Windows Vista Business, but with a few additional features. I'll highlight those in the tables below.

This leaves most people with four Vista product editions to consider: Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate. But we can trim it even further: Since Vista Home Basic is crippled and does not include some of the best features found in other Windows Vista versions, I have some very basic (ahem) advice: Do not purchase or use Windows Vista Home Basic. It's that simple.

In the end, most Windows users are going to want to choose between Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate. And what's interesting is that the first two of these choices correspond almost perfectly with the two mainstream Windows XP versions that are currently being provided on new PCs today: Windows XP Media Center Edition and XP Professional, respectively. Windows Vista Ultimate is brand new and can be considered a superset of the home-oriented features in Vista Home Premium and the business-oriented features in Vista Business. So those who want it all--and don't mind paying for it--should snag Vista Ultimate. That's the version I'll be using.

Regardless of my opinion, you should make your decision based on which version of Windows Vista meets your needs. And the way to figure that out is to compare which features are available in which Vista product editions. So, in the following tables, you can find that information. Note that individual features will be discussed and rated in later parts of this review.

Comparing the product editions feature-by-feature

In the following tables, logically divided by category, you can see which Vista features are available in which Vista product editions.

User interface features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Windows Vista Basic UI Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Aero UI ("Glass")   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Flip Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Flip 3D   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Live Taskbar Thumbnails   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Instant search Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Live content organization in Explorer windows Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Security features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
User Account Control (UAC) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Security Center Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Defender Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Firewall Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Internet Explorer 7 Protected Mode Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Phishing Filter (IE7 and Windows Mail) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Update (can access Microsoft Update) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Parental Controls Yes Yes     Yes

Performance features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Windows ReadyDrive Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows ReadyBoost Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
64-bit processor support Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Maximum RAM (32-bit version) 4 GB 4 GB 4 GB 4 GB 4 GB
Maximum RAM (64-bit version) 8 GB 16 GB 128+ GB 128+ GB 128+ GB
Physical processor support 1 1 2 2 2
Processor core support Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited

Reliability features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Real-time backup and recovery Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Scheduled backup   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows ShadowCopy     Yes Yes Yes
System image backup and recovery     Yes Yes Yes
Encrypting File System (EFS)     Yes Yes Yes
Windows BitLocker Full Drive Encryption       Yes Yes
Windows SuperFetch Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Automatic hard disk defragmentation Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Internet features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Internet Explorer 7 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
RSS support Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Mail Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Bundled applications


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Windows Calendar Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Contacts Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Sidebar Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Games Explorer Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Premium games   Yes Yes Yes Yes

Digital media features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Windows Photo Gallery Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Themed photo slide shows Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Media Player 11 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Media Center   Yes     Yes
Windows Media Center HDTV and CableCard support   Yes     Yes
Xbox 360 Media Center Extender compatibility   Yes     Yes
Windows Movie Maker Yes  Yes     Yes
Windows Movie Maker HD format support   Yes     Yes
Windows DVD Maker   Yes     Yes

Networking features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Network and Sharing Center Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Improved wireless networking Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Improved power management Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Number of supported simultaneous peer network connections 5 10 10 10 10
Windows Meeting Space View only Yes Yes Yes Yes
Improved file and folder sharing Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Network Projector support   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Presentation Settings   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Remote Desktop Client only Client only Yes Yes Yes
Join domain (Windows Server/SBS)     Yes Yes Yes
Offline files and folder support     Yes Yes Yes
IIS Web Server     Yes Yes Yes

Mobility features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Windows Mobility Center Partial Partial Yes Yes Yes
Sync Center Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tablet PC functionality   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Touch screen support   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows SideShow (auxiliary display support)   Yes Yes Yes Yes

Other Windows Vista features


  Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise Ultimate
Windows Anytime Upgade Yes (to Home Premium or Ultimate) Yes (to Ultimate) Yes (to Ultimate)    
Windows Ultimate Extras         Yes
Speech recognition suport Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Accessibility Settings and Ease of Access Center Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Welcome Center Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
XPS document support Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Fax and Scan     Yes Yes Yes

Other considerations

Beyond the feature lists shown above, there are other issues you should consider when it comes time to migrate to Windows Vista. In addition to simply purchasing a full retail version of any of the Vista product editions, there are various ways in which you can upgrade as well. Each of these methods requires you have some sort of valid current version of Windows. But they can dramatically lower the cost of moving to Vista or, in one case, allow you to later move forward to more powerful Vista product editions.

Consider a Vista Upgrade version

For example, if you'd to upgrade your existing PC from Windows XP (or, in a more limited fashion, Windows 2000 or Windows XP Professional x64 Edition) to a comparable Windows Vista product edition, you can take advantage of the lower cost of a Vista Upgrade version. While I spell out the full details of this process in my showcase, Can You Upgrade to Windows Vista?, it works like so:

People with older Windows versions (9x, Me, NT) do not qualify for upgrade pricing. Windows 2000 and XP x64 users do qualify for upgrade pricing, but they cannot do an inplace upgrade. Instead, they will need to use an Upgrade version of Vista to perform a full-install of the product. Windows XP users, meanwhile, qualify for upgrade pricing and can perform an in-place upgrade (which I don't recommend) or a full install of Vista using an Upgrade version. (I discuss both methods of installing Windows Vista in the next part of this review.)

Express Upgrade

If you buy a new PC with XP preinstalled between October 26, 2006 and March 15, 2007, you may qualify for a free or inexpensive "cross-grade" to Windows Vista thanks to Microsoft's Vista Express Upgrade program. Again, I've written an article explaining this promotion in detail, but the gist is that customers who purchase PCs with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Professional Edition, Tablet PC Edition 2005, or XP Professional x64 Edition during this timeframe can get a free or reduced-price copy of a comparable Vista product edition. Those who purchase a PC with XP Home Edition preinstalled qualify for half-price upgrades to Windows Vista Home Basic or Home Premium (their choice).

Windows Anytime Upgrade

Those who acquire Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, or Business are eligible for an electronic upgrade to a higher-end Windows Vista product edition through a new Windows feature called Windows Anytime Upgrade. While this feature will not be enabled until January 2007, Microsoft tells me that the pricing will be a bit less expensive than buying a retail boxed copy of the Windows Vista Upgrade version in question.

Windows Vista Home Basic users will be able to use this feature to upgrade to Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate. Windows Vista Home Premium and Business customers can use Windows Anytime Upgrade to upgrade to Windows Vista Ultimate. Because all Windows Vista product editions ship with the same bits on the install DVD, Windows Anytime Upgrade is basically just a way to unlock features and purchase a new Product Key.

What's really interesting about these options is that it opens up some weird possibilities. For example, you could purchase a Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005-based PC this holiday season, use the Express Upgrade program to get a copy of Windows Vista Home Premium for the price of shipping, install it, and then use Windows Anytime Upgrade to upgrade that copy of Vista to Windows Vista Ultimate. You know, if you really wanted to.