All the Flavors of Windows 7 ExplainedS

Today Microsoft confirmed the six flavors of Windows 7—here's the rundown of the packages, plus some insight as to why it's better than the Vista jumble.

At first glance, the version breakdown does look a lot like Windows Vista. There are five six SKUs of Windows 7: Starter, Home Basic (developing markets only), Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate. But there are a couple reasons it's less horrendous than the Vista situation.

Consumers are really only picking between Home Premium and Professional. There's no more Home Basic in the civilized world, which was a gimped version of Vista that didn't have Aero or Media Center that a lot of consumers unwittingly got stuck with. Ultimate, for the most part, won't be very visible to the average guy says Microsoft. So you'll only get Ultimate if you know that's what you want from the start (meaning you're likely tech savvy enough to wade through the SKU muck). Regular people won't ever see Starter or Enterprise. Basically, you'll walk into Best Buy and pick either Home Premium or Professional, whether you're buying a new PC or a copy to install. It's a lot more like the Windows XP Home and Professional dichotomy.

Professional has all the same media and entertainment features as Home Premium. With Vista, if you wanted the pro-class OS and needed media features like Windows Media Center, you had to buy Ultimate. Now, it works more like a true hierarchy—Professional and Enterprise have every feature that's in Home Premium, plus the business-y features. And then Ultimate is a step above them.

The Upgrade Question
Microsoft wouldn't discuss pricing, but the general sense was that there will be full retail packages of Windows 7 alongside upgrade editions for Vista users. While they didn't come out and say it directly that XP would require a full retail package, Microsoft said that, as in the Windows 7 beta, going to Windows 7 from XP will require a clean install and "that will be reflected with the packaging." There will be migration tools and stuff, but it looks like they'll be paying more to upgrade than Vista users. Update: Mary Jo Foley confirms XP users can buy an upgrade license, even though you'll need a full install.

Now for a quick runthrough of every version.

Windows 7 Starter is for emerging markets mostly, but also for some netbooks as an option. It's pretty gimpy, and only runs three apps at a time, though it'll have the new taskbar, Device Stage and jump list. Since Home Premium (and even the Ultimate beta) runs pretty well on netbooks, most of them are probably going to stick with that, so don't worry too much about it.

Windows 7 Home Basic is for developing markets only, and Microsoft didn't even tell me anything about it, so forget about it. [This info was added in an update.]

Windows 7 Home Premium is the standard consumer offering of the OS with Aero Peek, Media Center and all the other cool features we've been talking about, and what most people will be running, whether they're on a desktop or a netbook. It's better at media than Vista Home Premium, since it ships with DVD playback and codecs like DivX out of the box. In case you're wondering why Microsoft kept the "Premium" tack-on despite the extinction of Basic—it's because in market testing, Vista users thought they were getting downgraded, going from Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Home.

Windows 7 Professional has everything that Home Premium does, but with business and "enthusiast" features like file encryption, location-aware printing and advanced backup.

Windows 7 Enterprise is for businesses buying OS licenses in bulk, so you probably won't have to worry about it (unless you're paid to). It's got everything Professional does, but with a few additions like BitLocker full-disk encryption and direct access capability, so you don't have go through a VPN for remote access.

Windows 7 Ultimate is, as you might have guessed, the ultimate version of Windows. Unlike Vista, where it was the combo of Home and Business with a couple added features, this time, it's like the end user version of Enterprise—in other words, the Enterprise version that regular people can buy. It has BitLocker, notably, and a few other advanced features. It seems like visibility of this will be low, outside of a few "special promotions" from vendors occasionally, to minimize confusion.

Not quite as clean as we'd have liked it, but if Microsoft does a good job with education and people really only have to pick between Home and Professional, it'll be a lot smoother ride this time around. Since they're keeping the upgrade vs. full version setup intact, hopefully they'll follow our advice and sell it to Vista users very cheaply. We'll find out when they reveal pricing in the coming months.