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It’s great to have options, and being able to pay for the software features you want, and not have to waste money paying for features you don’t want and will never use, seems like a great idea. We got a taste of that with Windows XP: if you’re a business user or a home power user who needs to be able to connect your computer to a domain or wants to encrypt files with EFS or connect to your system from somewhere else via Remote Desktop, you could pay extra for XP Professional. If you only want to do simple home computing tasks such as checking email and surfing the web and running a word processing program, you could save a few bucks by getting XP Home instead. There are also a couple of special purpose editions, for Tablet PCs and Media Center home entertainment computers, but those operating systems come installed on the systems.

Now, with Windows Vista, there are even more choices – and some users are a little confused by the plethora of options that are expected to be available. Pundits are making fun of the abundance of choices; see this humorous article claiming that “Windows Vista to Ship in 33 Different Versions“.

In reality, Microsoft now lists five editions on the Vista web site.

Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate editions (back in February, Microsoft announced six editions which included Vista Starter Edition, a very restricted version for “emerging markets” – read third world countries – only). Although pricing hasn’t yet been officially announced, we expect the cost to rise approximately in that order. How do you decide which one you need?

Home Basic will be the lowest priced of the retail editions and will be very, well, basic, much like XP Home. Perhaps most notably, it won’t support the cool Aero glass interface with its translucent windows and other eye candy. Cynics might wonder, if you don’t get Aero, why not just continue to run XP? Basic will, however, include security enhancements, parental control, improved search capabilities, Windows Mail, Calendar and Contacts, and other new features. Home Premium offers additional features, such as EFS encryption, as well as both Tablet PC and Media Center PC functionality and a host of entertainment applications such as DVD authoring, photo management, and extra games. Home Premium supports twice as much RAM as Home Basic (16 GB vs. 8 GB).

On the business side, you now have two choices, two – well, sort of. Business Edition is comparable to XP Pro. It includes IIS (web server software), fax support, Remote Desktop, and dual processor support, among other business oriented features, as well as most of the features of Home Premium except for Media Center. Companies that enter into a Software Assurance or Enterprise Licensing agreement with Microsoft can go a step further and get Enterprise Edition, which adds BitLocker drive encryption (enhanced security for company laptops that contain sensitive information), a built-in version of Virtual PC that runs a single VM session at a time, UNIX application support and better multi-language support. This version won’t be available to individuals through retail or OEM channels.

Finally, there’s the best (and most expensive) of all possible worlds: Vista Ultimate. It has all the features of Enterprise Edition, along with the entertainment features of Home Premium, including Media Center, and is the high end option for both home users/gamers and business users who are multimedia professionals.

To confuse matters a little more, there are also expected to be “N” editions of both Home Basic and Business editions, which don’t include Windows Media Player. These are made to comply with EU regulations and will only be available in the European Union.

All these choices may cause some folks to agonize a bit when they decide to take the upgrade plunge, especially home users. Should you stick with Basic, spend a little more for Premium, or bite the bullet, empty your wallet and go all the way with Ultimate?

The good news is that, if you start out conservatively and later discover that you want more features, Microsoft is making it easy for you to upgrade one version of Vista to another. The Anytime Upgrade licenses will be sold by PC vendors and solutions providers. If you have Home Basic, you can upgrade to either Premium or Ultimate. If you have Business Edition, you can upgrade to Ultimate. You can read more about the program, which started beta testing this month, here.

Unfortunately, if you buy a high end edition and decide you don’t need all those features, you can’t downgrade and get a refund for the difference.

How do you feel about all these different editions of Vista? Should Microsoft have stuck with two basic versions, a home and a business edition? Or do you appreciate the ability to pick and choose the feature set you want? Is the Anytime Upgrade program a great idea, or just a ploy to squeeze more money out of you? If/when you upgrade to Vista, which edition will you choose? Let us know what you think.

Deb Shinder, MVP