Vista Delays And Multiple Versions: Cut Through The Confusion

Scot Finnie installs four of Vista's six versions and tells you what's in them, what hardware you need to run them, and what to think about Microsoft bumping consumer Vista

March 23, 2006

14 Min Read
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Could Microsoft confuse potential buyers of Windows Vista any more royally than it has over the past month? Six completely new versions, but what truly differentiates them? What will the real hardware requirements be? And by the way, businesses, which are unlikely to buy the operating system in big numbers before 2008, get Vista this November, while consumers who tend to buy new PCs at holiday time won’t see it until January 2007. What gives?

Vista Delays, Multiple Versions

•  Introduction

•  Six Versions Analyzed•  The Hardware Experience•  Takeaways

These mixed messages could wreak havoc this holiday season. To date, Microsoft has not released official system requirements for the shipping version of Vista, so PC buyers of all types may be playing a guessing game. And OEM PC makers will have a tough time certifying their holiday XP PCs as Vista-ready without access to final consumer Vista code to test with. (For a timeline of Microsoft's various Vista development delays, read Vista Setback Timeline.)

The good news is that the current beta of Vista offers clues about the Vista versions, both the ones shipping in November and the ones shipping in January 2007. It also provides some harder information about the hardware required to support the different flavors of Windows Vista and the two video modes, Vista Basic and Vista Aero.

Introducing The Versions
In February, Microsoft distributed the latest widespread beta to Vista reviewers in two variations only: 32-bit and 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate. As you might guess from its name, the Ultimate edition of Vista is the superset. It contains all the features from the lesser versions of Windows Vista, both business and consumer, and adds a few of its own. Because it is the "everything" version, it offers no useful information about the differences between itself and the other five Vista versions.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has provided little hard information about the planned differences between its six versions of Vista, claiming that it isn't ready to reveal details yet. Originally there was only a hazy press release. More recently, a glitzy marketing-oriented Windows Vista Web site has appeared that offers some additional detail, but not enough to be really helpful.What features will be missing from Windows Vista Business, Windows Vista Enterprise, Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Home Basic, and Windows Vista Starter? To find out as much as I could, I acquired access to the Business, Home Premium, and Home Basic versions of the February CTP (build 5308), and installed them on various PCs on my test network. That effort taught me both about some of the features specific to each version and about the real-world hardware requirements for the various versions.

Consumer Vista Versions
Microsoft insists that there are three consumer versions of Windows Vista, but it's only logical to place Vista Starter with the other consumer SKUs, making for four in all. As you go down this list, each succeeding version of the OS adds additional features and functions.

Vista Delays, Multiple Versions

•  Introduction

•  Six Versions Analyzed•  The Hardware Experience•  Takeaways

  • Windows Vista Starter. Almost nothing about this version has been made public other than that its purpose is to provide starter PCs for individuals and families who have not been able to afford a computer. Starter is the only version of Windows Vista that will support only 32-bit hardware; plus, it seems likely that Starter will not support the Vista Aero video mode. Even though Starter is effectively a consumer version of the operating system, it doesn't look like the OS will be sold at retail. I believe that it will contain the Windows Defender anti-malware protection and most, if not all, of the other security features. There's a possibility that Microsoft will strip out the integrated desktop search functionality and/or the Windows Sidebar. It's also possible that Vista Starter might ship at a later time than the rest of the Vista versions.

  • Windows Vista Home Basic. This version includes the Sidebar, integrated desktop search, and all the security features, but it does not support the Vista Aero video mode, and none of the extra features listed in this story for the other Vista versions. Without Aero, the Home Basic version won't be able to do previews of the application windows on the taskbar or include the Windows Flip/Windows Flip 3D features (Vista's version of Alt-Tab task-switching) that all the other versions (except Vista Starter) will. There are also some minor Administrative Tool limitations. Vista Home Basic will come with the Windows Anytime Upgrade for online upgrading to either Home Premium or Ultimate.

  • Windows Vista Home Premium. The next notch up from Vista Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium offers many of the bells and whistles that come with Vista Business, plus its digital media features. But it doesn't come with the built-in network protocols and plumbing for enterprise management. It adds a strong emphasis on digital media, including Media Center support, the ability to share media libraries on a network, the ability for Windows Movie Maker to edit high-definition (HD) movies, and the new Windows DVD Burner utility. It fully supports Aero and includes Tablet PC support. Home Premium adds a new Backup utility and the Connect to Network Projector applet, which wirelessly connects your mobile PC to most wireless presentation projectors. It also offers Windows Anytime Upgrade for online upgrade to Vista Ultimate.

  • Windows Vista Ultimate. This top-of-the-line version includes all features from all other versions, including all the functionality from Home Premium and Enterprise. This version of Windows is equally at home in an office remotely managing a client/server Windows Server environment as it is on a power-user's desktop serving out media to the entire household. To all the features of the other versions, it adds the ability to serve as a Remote Desktop host PC, faxing and scanning, and Windows Ultimate Extras (an as-yet unknown online-delivered set of extra software).Business Vista Versions

    Small businesses with less than ten employees may look to Windows Vista Ultimate or Vista Home Premium, but I'm betting that most business will, in fact, opt for one of the two business-oriented SKUs of Windows Vista. Here's how they stack up:

  • Windows Vista Business. Includes all the security protection and integrated desktop search functionality. This version also has an impending hardware failure warning (this may be available in all Vista versions), new built-in data backup software, Tablet PC support, and the Connect to Network Projector applet. It supports group policy management. Vista Business is designed to be deployed and managed by management tools that Microsoft is delivering to larger businesses.

  • Windows Vista Enterprise. This version of Vista is available only to organizations that have purchased a Microsoft volume license. It adds to the Vista Business version with full-volume encryption, Unix emulator, a virtualization utility for running apps that don't fully support Vista under a previous version of Windows, and multiple-language support.

    Interestingly, a few items that were in Windows XP are missing from Windows Vista. Windows Messenger is entirely gone. NetMeeting has also disappeared, but is being replaced by a very different application, called Windows Collaboration, that does part of what NetMeeting did. Microsoft's approach seems to be to offer basic screen sharing, presentation sharing, and file sharing across the Internet. This simple application is designed more at the level of WordPad and Disk Defragmenter than at the full-blown application level.

    Also missing, at least from build 5308, are several games: Internet Backgammon, Internet Checkers, Internet Spades, Internet Hearts, Internet Reversi, and Pinball. The infrequently used Hardware Profiles functionality is also gone.For more information about the features presented in the latest version of Windows Vista, you can read Vista Visuals: Windows Sidebar, Gadgets, Media Player 11, And More.

    The Hardware Experience

    Microsoft's stated system requirements for the Vista betas are 512MB of RAM and a mainstream processor from AMD or Intel suitable for use with Windows XP. Some Microsoft execs have suggested that a 1.8GHz or faster Pentium (or a comparable CPU) should be the working minimum CPU requirement. For a video system capable of supporting the Aero video mode during the beta timeframe, the recommendation is an AGP or PCI Express graphics adapter that supports DirectX 9 with a Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) driver developed for Vista, 32-bits-per-pixel color depth, and at least 64MB of video memory. At WinHEC 2005, Microsoft presenters specifically suggested the ATI Radeon 9800 and Nvidia GeForce FX 5900 series or better graphics cards. This Microsoft TechNet document gives more detail about Vista video support. Additional information on specific support is available on the ATI and Nvidia Web sites:

  • Nvidia GPUs and drivers that support Windows Vista build 5308

    I tested Windows Vista with everything from an 850MHz Pentium III with 256MB of RAM all the way up to a 3GHz Pentium 4 and an AMD 64 Athlon 3000+. Some interesting things emerged. First, my 850MHz Intel P3 had sufficient disk space for Vista, but its older ATI 32MB video card and 256MB of RAM made it unusable for the OS. I upgraded the RAM to 512MB, and there was a noticeable improvement, but there was still a lot of disk thrashing at boot-up and whenever I launched programs. I found I didn't mind the loss of the Aero video mode as much as I'd expected to, but the video support and CPU performance meant that this would never really become a Vista system.

    Vista Delays, Multiple Versions

    •  Introduction•  Six Versions Analyzed•  The Hardware Experience•  Takeaways

    I ran Vista Business on a Pentium III 1.2GHz machine with 512MB and the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200, which is about the bare minimum needed to support Aero. Surprisingly, Vista Business ran pretty well with this configuration. The age of this system (about 4.5 years) and specifically its motherboard (Intel D815 series) gave Vista's new hybrid "sleep" mode some difficulties. It didn't want to sleep, and it didn't want to wake up when it did. But that was the only hiccup. Performance wasn't stellar, but then, this level of machine appears to be the absolute minimum for system requirements. You'd probably want more RAM with this particular video card. And make no mistake, the ability of the CPU to offload some tasks to the graphics coprocessor and a nice pool of video RAM offers a noticeable improvement over the previous system.

    The next level up comprised several 2GHz Mobile P4 IBM ThinkPads, all of which have ATI Radeon x300 video with 64MB of video RAM. The Lenovo notebooks supported Vista nicely, as did the faster P4 and AMD 64 desktop test units. Each of the two 3GHz P4 test machines has 128MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro video cards, and they showed off Vista quite well. With more advanced Nvidia and ATI 3D graphics coprocessors, and more video RAM, it only gets better. When combined with Microsoft's Avalon presentation sub-system, which can render vector-based graphics, the top-flight video hardware eliminated video hesitations and pauses, stutters, blank-outs, and other video maladies that have affected all previous versions of Windows.Recommended System Requirements
    Businesses and end-users making PC and notebook purchase decisions this year have a tough row to hoe. Windows XP is beginning to near the end of its service life, so any PC you buy this year should probably be capable of being upgraded to Windows Vista Business or Windows Vista Home Premium with full Vista Aero video support. Based on the research for this story, I'm recommending these system requirements for those two classes of Windows Vista versions:

    Windows Vista Business:
    Minimum: 1.4GHz minimum Pentium 4/Pentium M/Centrino Intel or comparable AMD CPU; AGP or PCI Express 3D video coprocessor with at least 64MB of video RAM that supports DirectX 9 and has Vista WDDM driver; 80GB hard drive; minimum 512MB of RAM (1GB if your video card uses system RAM).

    Preferred: 2GHz Pentium 4/Pentium M/Centrino Intel or comparable AMD CPU; dedicated graphics card with at least 128MB video RAM; 1GB or more system RAM; 7200RPM 120MB SATA hard drive.

    Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate:
    Minimum: 1.8GHz minimum Pentium 4/Pentium M/Centrino Intel or comparable AMD CPU; dedicated graphics card with at least 128MB video RAM; 1GB or more system RAM; 7200RPM 120MB SATA hard drive.

    Preferred: 3.0GHz minimum Pentium 4/Pentium M/Centrino Intel or comparable AMD CPU (or dual-core motherboard); dedicated graphics card with 256MB video RAM; 2GB of RAM; 7200RPM 200MB SATA hard drive (more storage required for heavy Media Center usage).


    Microsoft hasn't set pricing yet, and that could have a profound effect on which versions wind up being the best values. Still, I'm already drawing conclusions.First of all, Windows Vista Home Basic is the version of Vista you should avoid. Unless there are specific business reasons for buying or leasing Vista Basic machines, I can think of no real reason why the purchase of such a product makes sense. The hardware support level will be XP class, and in that case, you might as well buy or stick with XP.

    Vista Delays, Multiple Versions

    •  Introduction•  Six Versions Analyzed•  The Hardware Experience•  Takeaways

    I haven't tested Windows Vista Enterprise yet, but I don't think it offers enough extra functionality to make it a must-have over Windows Vista Business. The virtualization utility would be nice, but you can add that functionality from standalone utilities offered by VMWare and Microsoft. Of course, because of the volume pricing available for Vista Enterprise, those few added features are just little sweeteners. But Vista Business will be available at volume discount pricing, too.

    It's unclear whether Vista Business will be selling on business-class PCs from direct retailers like Dell and Gateway in time for the holidays. But if you have to have Vista on a new PC, that may be the way to go. Although Vista Business lacks the digital media features, it's a very good OS. It's probably no surprise that I find myself gravitating toward Vista Ultimate. I don't really need it at work, but in my home office, Ultimate will be a must for me and probably many other advanced users. It's the only version that can host Remote Desktop connections. I have e-mail running on only one machine in my home; in order to access it wirelessly from any room in the house, I simply initiate a Remote Desktop connection. So the one machine running e-mail, at least, will need Windows Ultimate.

    People who run small businesses largely from their homes, and who try to get away with a single PC for both business and pleasure, will also prefer Vista Ultimate. For many home users, though, Vista Home Premium is probably the best version.

    Microsoft has invited reviewers to a workshop in early May, and with Microsoft's WinHEC 2006 tradeshow being held in late May, it's very possible we could see another beta drop that month. On the other hand, Microsoft's recent Windows Vista delay announcement throws the logic of everything Microsoft has worked for into doubt. Could there be two or even three more major betas? Has Microsoft decided that it needs to add new features to the consumer versions?A lot of things are up in the air. Microsoft is breaking a lot of traditions with this one, and I expect the surprises to keep coming.

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