Breaking down the Windows Vista versions

Which version of Windows Vista will work best for you and your organization? I've gone through each version, feature by feature, and made a list of which features are available only in specific Vista versions. This article, first in a two-part series, includes end-user features such as Windows Media Center, the Aero interface, backup, and encryption.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor on

Microsoft announced the broad outlines of its Windows Vista lineup a few months ago. In all, there are five mainstream editions: three for home users, two aimed at businesses. (This count tosses out Windows Vista Starter edition, which will be sold only with low-end PCs in emerging markets, and the two N versions mandated for sale in the European Union, which remove some media-related features.)

What’s in each version? The long-neglected Windows Backup program has received a complete makeover for Windows Vista. Microsoft has been mum on the breakdown of features so far, but a close look at the preliminary Windows Vista Product Guide, which was briefly made available for download last week and then quickly pulled, offers details. The feature matrix in that document is broken down in a way that supports Microsoft’s marketing messages. I’ve gone through the whole table carefully. pulled out all features that are unavailable in one or more versions, and organized the information in a way that helps potential upgraders make smart buying decisions. This article, first in a two-part series, focuses on end-user features. Part two looks at advanced networking and system administration features.


You want the full Aero interface, with transparent title bars, Flip 3D, and swooshing windows? Make sure you have the right hardware, and get any version except Home Basic. Even with the best video adapter in the world, that entry-level version won’t use the advanced Aero effects.

Hardware Support

All 32-bit versions of Windows Vista are limited to 4GB of RAM. If you choose to install the 64-bit Windows Vista code on a system whose CPU supports it, your RAM limits vary according to which version you’re installing. For Home Basic, RAM tops out at 8GB. Home Premium users can install and use up to 16GB of RAM. The Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate versions support 128GB of RAM or more.

If you have a PC with multiple processor sockets (not to be confused with dual-core CPUs or hyperthreading), the second processor will go unused if you install the Home Basic or Home Premium edition of Windows Vista. The two Business versions and Ultimate will make use of up to two CPUs.

Notebook and Tablet PC Features

If you’re planning to run Windows Vista on a Tablet PC, you can use any version except the stripped-down Home Basic edition. All of the Tablet PC features – integrated support for pens and digital ink, touch screen support, and handwriting recognition – are found in the Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions only.

For all other notebooks, Windows Vista includes a new Mobility Center, which provides quick access to commonly used features like power management and control over external displays.


The Windows Mobility Center is only partially supported in the Home Basic and Home Premium editions, although it’s not clear which features are missing.

And if your new portable device has a small auxiliary display that’s powered by the Windows SideShow feature, steer clear of Home Basic – that edition won’t recognize SideShow displays.

Parental Controls

The three home flavors of Windows Vista offer the capability to restrict access to games and other programs, limit the times when specific user accounts can log on, and filter web browsing. These features are unavailable in the Business and Enterprise editions.


Digital Media and Games

Do you want Windows Media Center features, including the 10-foot interface, the ability to record and playback standard or high-definition TV, and support for CableCARD devices and Media Center Extenders (including Xbox 360)? Then you’ll need either the Home Premium edition or Windows Vista Ultimate. Media Center features are missing from Home Basic, Business, and Enterprise versions.

Most other digital media features are similarly restricted. The Home Basic edition offers the basic Movie Maker package, but you’ll need Home Premium or Ultimate to create and edit high-definition movies with Movie Maker HD, or to burn those projects to DVD with Windows DVD Maker. Likewise, only Home Premium and Ultimate offer the ability to create and play back themed slide shows. None of these features are in the Business or Enterprise editions.

Games? The new premium Windows Vista games are completely missing from Home Basic and available as an option (not installed by default) in Business and Enterprise editions.

Faxing and Scanning

The Windows Fax and Scan program is installed by default in the Business edition, available as an optional component in Ultimate and Enterprise, and unavailable in Home Basic and Home Premium.

Backup and Encryption

The good news? The long-neglected Windows Backup program has received a complete makeover for Windows Vista. Its basic functionality is available in every Vista version. Some advanced features, including the capability to schedule backups or use a network device as the backup medium, are missing from the Home Basic edition.

In Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions, a new option allows you to create an image-based backup rather than a file-by-file backup. In these editions only, you can also turn on Windows Shadow Copy, a feature formerly found only in Windows server versions, which maintains backup copies of changed files so you can roll back to a previous version of a file directly from Windows Explorer.

The Encrypting File System, which allows file- or folder-level encryption of data, is available only on the Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions. BitLocker Drive Encryption, which uses a physical hardware key and a passcode to secure an entire volume from unauthorized access, is available only with the Enterprise and Ultimate editions.

In part two of this series, I explain which advanced networking and administration features are available in different Vista versions.

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