Essentially, Windows 7 is an improved version of Windows Vista. In addition to most of the features and functionalities that are available in Windows Vista, Windows 7 has been enhanced with many new ones, some of which are pretty cool. But before you get all excited about it, there is one important decision that you need to make—choose the edition of Windows 7 that is right for you. Microsoft has done a reasonably good job of streamlining Windows edition sets since Windows XP. However, you may still find that choosing the edition best suited for your needs is not exactly a trivial task, whether you are an individual home user or a corporate IT professional.
Which Windows 7 editions exist? This question is not as easy to answer as one might imagine. Before we can even begin talking about editions, we need to agree on what the term edition means. First of all, editions are not the same as versions. Versions represent different operating systems altogether; for example, Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 are versions. Different levels of updates can also be deemed versions. Examples of such versions are the original version of Windows 7, also known as Release to Manufacturing (RTM), and Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 (SP1). An edition is a variation, or flavor, if you will, within a specific version. There are several methods for organizing editions, depending on the aspects of Windows 7 that you want to focus on: a feature set, an architecture type, a licensing method, a distribution channel, a marketing zone, and even an installation type. To make this situation more fun, there is no single, official way of referring to each of these categories. Some combinations of editions can be referred to as edition families; some can be called lines of products. Rather than wasting our time in an attempt to invent an unambiguous term for each type of edition, we’ll refer to all of them as simply editions and try to find our way in this maze by using descriptive, common-sense terms.
Let’s start with feature sets. There are six major edition groups:
Each next-level edition’s features are a superset of any preceding-level edition’s features. But by now you probably already don’t believe that you can get off that easy. Indeed, there is an exception: Enterprise and Ultimate editions are virtually the same; the only difference between them is that Enterprise are volume-licensed (VL) editions, whereas Ultimate are retail editions. Consequently, Enterprise editions support volume activation (VA), whereas Ultimate editions do not.
This brings us to another type of classification: Windows 7 editions are classified as either retail or VL editions. Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, and Ultimate are retail editions. All Enterprise editions are VL editions. The Professional group includes both VL and retail editions. Sometimes retail editions are also referred to as consumer editions.
In addition to standard, full-featured editions, each group also includes special editions, such as N, K, and KN, which come without Windows Media Player and some related features. The special editions are provided in compliance with certain foreign legal requirements and are intended for their respective designated markets, such as European Union and South Korea.
You are not likely to hear much about Home Basic editions, because they are also considered special; they are available only in the markets that Microsoft has designated as emerging.
Architecture-wise, all editions, except Starter, come in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. Starter editions come in only 32-bit varieties.
If you have already started feeling a little dizzy, hang on for yet another moment; there is some more. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are allowed to use special, OEM-discounted editions for pre-installing them on new computers that are intended to be sold to end users. Those end users who prefer to purchase Windows 7 not from OEMs, separately from computers, can choose between fully licensed editions and upgrade editions.
Having put this classification ordeal behind us, we can finally focus on the feature sets. Compared to what we have just been through, this may seem pretty easy. But better not to rush to a judgment. Unlike earlier versions of Microsoft operating systems, all editions of Windows 7 reportedly include all of the binaries that implement the entire feature set. The binaries for the features that are not included in a specific edition are locked. In theory, this should mean that any edition can be easily transformed into any other edition within the same architecture by simply unlocking or locking the appropriate binaries. Not so fast, says Microsoft.
First of all, whatever edition changes might be theoretically possible, Microsoft does not allow any in-place downgrades; only upgrades are supported. There are two ways for performing in-place upgrades: Windows Anytime Upgrade (WAU) and Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM). Both methods apply to only retail/consumer editions. WAU is available on the Internet, is intended for individual home-based users, and works on one computer at a time. DISM is a command-line tool available in Windows 7 and in Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE). By using DISM’s edition-servicing commands, you can raise the edition of an offline Windows Imaging (WIM) installation image. If you want to use WAU, you must first activate your current installation of Windows 7. If you use DISM, you can raise the edition of an offline WIM image without providing a product key. You can then deploy the upgraded image to target computers. You will need a separate product key for each target computer in order to activate the deployed installations.
Now, finally, if you have survived all this fun, you might be ready to start thinking about each edition’s feature set and then about actually choosing the edition that is right for you.