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One edition to rule them all
So, that's Windows 7. Where do you sign up? First of all, we should stress that this operating system isn't actually coming out until October 22. (We were given access to the complete, release-to-manufacturing version ahead of time.) You can either wait a couple months or pre-order now, but in either case, you'll be faced with a choice: which edition should you get?

There are six editions we know of, but if you're grabbing a retail-boxed copy to upgrade your PC, you'll only have to choose between Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. Each one is more expensive and offers more features than the last. To make things more straightforward, we've compiled a table with a list of major features, the editions that include them, and pricing:

  Windows 7 Home Premium
Windows 7 Professional
Windows 7 Ultimate
New Aero features
Windows Search
Internet Explorer 8
Windows Media Center
HomeGroups
Full-system Backup and Restore
Remote Desktop client
Backups across network  
Remote Desktop host  
Windows XP Mode  
Domain Join  
BitLocker    
Interface language switching    
Full license price $199.99 $299.99 $319.99
Upgrade license price $119.99 $199.99 $219.99
Anytime Upgrade price $89.99 $139.99

In the Vista days, you typically had to choose between Home Premium if you wanted consumer entertainment features and Business if you wanted tools like full-system backups and Remote Desktop hosting. Only Ultimate combined all of them, but its price tag put it out of the reach of many users.

With Windows 7, several things have changed. Home Premium now includes some of the former Vista Business features like full-system backups and Shadow Copy, as we noted earlier. Meanwhile, Windows 7 Professional has all of the Home Premium features plus the former Vista Business features, along with new additions like Windows XP Mode.

You can see where this is going. Windows 7 Ultimate might have BitLocker disk encryption and miscellaneous enterprise functionality, but nothing that really warrants spending that extra 20 bucks for the vast majority of users. So, really, the choice comes down to Home Premium vs. Professional, and it ought to be very clear-cut if you know what you need. If in doubt, you can always grab Windows 7 Home Premium and step up to one of the other two editions via Windows Anytime Upgrade. Microsoft says you'll only need to pay $90 to go from Home Premium to Professional, and the switchover process looks pretty painless.

Now, that doesn't answer the question of whether you should buy Windows 7 as an upgrade license or a full license. Upgrades require a legit version of either Windows XP or Windows Vista, and technically, you'll need an activated version of one of those OSes on your hard drive for the installation to work. In practice, you may be able to use the same upgrade trick as with Vista—Microsoft might not approve, but if you're legit, then we believe you ought to be able to upgrade however you please.

On October 22, you might also be able to purchase OEM licenses from online retailers like Newegg. Vista OEM licenses are available at a meaty discount, but they only cover a single type of media—32-bit or 64-bit—and a single system. That is, you're technically not allowed to transfer an OEM license to a new PC next time you upgrade, and forget about upgrading from 32-bit to 64-bit if you get more RAM. Microsoft will probably offer Windows 7 OEM licenses in a similar fashion, although we don't know for sure yet.

Incidentally, this is as good a place as any to point out that Microsoft doesn't include Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Movie Maker, or the Windows Calendar in any of the Windows 7 editions. New and slightly different versions of those apps are now available as free downloads from the Windows Live Essentials site. (Calendar functionality now comes as part of Windows Live Mail, too.) Microsoft offers a single installer for all Windows Live apps, although you'll get Windows Live sync, sign-up, and upload assistants as part of the bargain, too.

Conclusion
Windows 7 has generated a ton of hype these past few months. Some claim this operating system is essentially Windows Vista done right—a new OS that draws on Vista's strengths while stripping away and polishing out its weaknesses. Windows XP users see it as, finally, a worthwhile upgrade. Vista users look forward to the improved performance and polish. Mac and Linux users scoff, convinced of their chosen platform's superiority.

I love debunking hype as much as the next guy, but I really think Windows 7 deserves it. After using it on my primary PC for three weeks, I've come to appreciate all of the little things Microsoft has improved. Sure, not everything works perfectly, and I still have flashbacks involving HomeGroups and Windows File Sharing configuration, but all things considered, Windows 7 is perhaps Microsoft's finest operating system to date.

Is it better than Mac OS X or Linux? I can't speak for the latter, but I used both Leopard and Windows 7 to write this article. I can't honestly say I prefer one over the other. These two operating systems make you work and operate in different ways, and they each have their upsides and downsides—I love window and virtual-desktop management in OS X, for instance, but I'll take Explorer over the Finder any day. The choice largely comes down to which suits your workflow the best.

As for whether you should make the switch from XP or Vista, well, that should go without saying at this point.TR

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