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Windows 7 comparison: Which edition is best for you?

With six version of Windows 7 scheduled for release, we needed to answer one question, once and for all: 'Which version of Windows 7 do I buy?' So we have

The prize for confusing the everyman goes, this year, to Microsoft. There are six versions of Windows 7: Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate, and it predictably transpires that confusion surrounds them, like fleas on a manky old cat.

So we're going to answer one question, once and for all:

Which version of Windows 7 should you buy?

If you're buying a PC for use at home, it's highly likely you want Windows 7 Home Premium. It's the version that'll do everything you expect Windows to do: run Windows Media Centre, network your home computers and devices, support multi-touch technologies and dual-monitor setups, Aero Peek, and so on and so forth. It's the main version for most people, for home PCs and laptops.

But ask yourself these questions: do you also take your laptop to the office? Do you need to run legacy (read: old and obscure) applications? Do you want automatic file backups built into Windows?

If the answer to these question is yes, you should buy Windows 7 Professional. It contains all the features of Home Premium, but adds support for Domain Joining, which you may need to log on to your office's corporate network; Windows XP Mode, which makes old software that's incompatible with Windows 7 run as if it was running on XP; and Microsoft's Backup and Restore Centre, which is an integrated file and folder backup utility for automated backup of important files. Essentially, it's for any computer that will spend half its life at your home, and the other half at the office.

If you're just the average consumer with a new PC, these are the two editions to decide between. But there are four others out there. Let's clear up what they're all about.

Editions to forget about

There are a couple of versions you'll likely never even see on shelves: Windows 7 Home Basic and Windows 7 Enterprise. Most people needn't worry about these. Home Basic is a stripped-down edition to be sold in developing markets, such as China, Brazil and Thailand, where Microsoft can charge less in order to tackle rampant piracy. It lacks perks such as Windows Media Centre and multi-touch navigation. It won't be sold on shelves in the UK, and you needn't be confused by its existence.

Windows 7 Enterprise is aimed at the larger businesses of the world, not home users. It incorporates all the features of Windows 7 Home Premium and Professional, but adds support for enterprise-level technologies for use in corporate environments. The most likely time you'll run into it is if your employer says, "Oi, newbie, use this laptop," or if you're an IT professional managing virtual machines and network privileges. Don't worry about buying it for the kids.

Windows 7 on netbooks

That's four of the six editions covered, but there are two odd ones left. If you're buying a netbook with Windows 7 installed, you may be sold one of them: Windows 7 Starter -- a special 'netbook edition' only sold pre-installed on new computers.

It's the most basic version of Windows 7, lacking almost all the perks of a modern OS: you'll miss multi-monitor support, multi-touch, Windows Media Centre, DVD playback, even the ability to change your desktop wallpaper. Realistically it exists to benefit Microsoft, not you, and to deter netbook manufacturers from installing free Linux operating systems instead of Windows, in an effort to keep netbook prices at rock bottom.

The only reason not to hate this edition is if you're using a netbook and care only about browsing the Web, using an IM client, writing notes in Word and sending email. Note that you'll always be able to pay to upgrade to a more complete version, such as Home Premium, at any time, without losing your files and programs.

Windows 7 Ultimate

This is for the enthusiast user who wants everything: Professional, Enterprise, Home Premium, all rolled into one giant operating system with every perk to the Windows 7 name. It's essentially Windows 7 Enterprise, but sold with individual licenses for consumer installation and use. It's got all the automated backup and Domain Joining features of Professional, all the BitLocker file encryption of Enterprise, and the XP Mode functionality of both. But it ain't cheap.

Our forum is a best friend to the confused

Still plagued with decision-related anguish? Still can't decide which edition deserves that precious space on your hard disk's platters? Our forum of editors, experts and users is here to help. Ask us anything you like.