Unanswered questions about what's in Windows 8 editions

Microsoft's announcement that Windows 8 will ship in only two retail versions cleared up some uncertainty. But it left a handful of interesting questions unanswered.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft’s announcement earlier this week that Windows 8 will be available in two retail/OEM editions for x86/x64 PCs cleared up a lot of uncertainty. But it left some observers, including me, with a short list of additional questions.

I sent a list of questions to Microsoft, which politely declined to comment. So I decided to share the list with you, along with my conjecture as to what the answers are.

Here’s what I’m still wondering about:

Are the RAM limitations gone?

Current versions of Windows 7 have arbitrary limits on the amount of physical memory that can be addressed by different editions. (See this link for the full list.)

If Windows 8 is a replacement for Windows 7 Home Premium, will it also be limited to 16 GB of addressable RAM? Or will all editions of Windows 8 have the ability to address up to 192 GB of RAM, as Windows 7 Professional and higher editions can today?

My guess: In keeping with the goal of simplifying editions, this artificial limitation will be removed.

Is Windows RT part of the Windows 8 family or not?

The wording of an announcement of this nature isn’t random. Each draft goes through many hands and is vetted heavily by marketing and legal managers before it’s published. So I found it interesting that the post contained this carefully crafted language:

Windows 8 is the official product name for the next x86/64 editions of Windows. … Windows RT is the newest member of the Windows family – also known as Windows on ARM or WOA, as we’ve referred to it previously.

That link leads to an earlier post on the Building Windows 8 blog, in which Steven Sinofsky referred to Windows on ARM (now officially named Windows RT) as a “a new member of the Windows family that builds on the foundation of Windows, has a very high degree of commonality and very significant shared code with Windows 8.” The implication is that Windows RT is not an edition of Windows 8 but a very close cousin.

My guess: We’ll have to wait and see how Microsoft’s marketing plays out late this year and early next year, when ARM-based devices appear in the marketplace. But it sure looks like Microsoft is trying to keep the Windows 8 and Windows RT brands separate.

Will Windows Anytime Upgrade be supported?

In Windows 7, it’s easy to upgrade from one edition to another, without having to do a complete reinstall. All you have to do is enter a new product key. (Here’s a Windows Anytime Upgrade walkthrough I did back in 2009.) Earlier this week, I used this feature to unlock Windows 7 Ultimate edition on a new notebook that came with Windows 7 Home Premium installed. The upgrade took eight minutes, with one restart and absolutely no change to installed applications and saved data. Will Windows 8 offer a similarly easy upgrade?

My guess: I’ll be shocked if this feature isn’t included. It’s incredibly easy and the underlying installer technology hasn’t changed. It would be more work to remove it than to leave it.

What’s the deal with Media Center?

Some readers are confused about the status of Media Center in Windows 8. Media Center was not a line in the chart listing features in each edition. The only mention in the post itself was this one:

Windows Media Center will be available as an economical “media pack” add-on to Windows 8 Pro.

Several commenters on my previous post expressed hope that the base edition of Windows 8 included Media Center technology. Others expressed concern that the “media pack” add-on requires Windows 8 Pro, when they view Media Center as a home/consumer technology, not a “pro” feature.

My guess: Media Center will not be included in the base edition and will only be available as an extra-cost “media pack” that requires Windows 8 Pro. My completely unfounded, wild-ass guess is that it will cost between $10 and $20 and will be available exclusively as an online offering.

And as an aside, for enthusiasts using Media Center’s DVR technology: Remember that it’s perfectly OK to stick with Windows 7. The Media Center code in Windows 8 is essentially the same as its predecessor, as far as I can tell. Windows 7 will be fully supported until 2020, and I can’t think of any Windows 8 feature (with the possible exception of Storage Spaces) that will be a must-have item for a dedicated Media Center machine.

Will Windows 8 offer DVD playback?

The point of separating Media Center from the base operating system, of course, is to avoid the requirement of paying Dolby Labs a royalty for every copy of Windows sold. Dolby Digital Plus technology is what allows DVD playback with surround sound. As Mary Jo Foley reported in August 2011:

DVD playback is built into Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate.

Dolby’s Digital Plus technology also is built into Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate, according to Dolby’s Web site. The site describes Dolby’s DIgital Plus as providing “next-generation surround sound” that helps improve the listening experience of DVDs and digital TVs by complementing high-definition video with support for HD audio.

If you use the base version of Windows 8, will you be able to play a DVD?

My guess: Place your bets. The DVD capability in Windows 7 is fueled by a simple MPEG-2 decoder that allows playback in Windows Media Player. With Windows XP and certain editions of Windows Vista, you had the option to purchase a separate codec pack that unlocked DVD playback.  If you have Windows 7 Home Basic or Starter, you have to upgrade to  Home Premium or install a third-party player to enable DVD playback. Given that so many new PCs no longer ship with any optical media, it’s conceivable that Microsoft could revert to a default configuration without a DVD decoder.

That's my list. Any questions you're dying to know the answers to about Windows 8 editions? Leave them in the Talkback section.


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