Different Versions of Windows Operating System

Before you start

Objectives: learn what is upgrading, why should we care about compatibility, what are Windows editions, and which Windows platform should we use (32-bit or 64-bit).

Prerequisites: no prerequisites.

Key terms: bit, hardware, edition, version, xp, vista, drivers, compatibility, home, features, upgrade


What is Upgrading

When we upgrade our operating system, we actually move from one version of the operating system to another. The first step in upgrading is to identify the operating system version we want to use. Some of the Windows operating systems versions are: Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. Windows 2000 is not being used any more. Windows XP is still used, but Windows 7 is replacing it. At the time of writing this article, Windows 8 was not yet released. Development for Windows XP other than some bug fixes has stopped. In fact, Microsoft will soon discontinue support for Windows XP. Depending on when you read this article, support may have already terminated for Windows XP. Windows XP has been superseded by Vista and Windows 7, but it has a wide installed base. It’s not being shipped on new computers anymore. Windows Vista replaced Windows XP, with Windows 7 being the latest update. Windows 7 is similar in features to Windows Vista, however it includes several bug fixes and new enhancements.

Compatibility

When upgrading, we will typically upgrade to Windows Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8. However, sometimes we will want to stick with Windows XP, because of the compatibility with hardware and software. XP is more compatible with older hardware and software that might still be in use at home or in a business environment. When it comes to hardware, we might find that Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8, are unable to use some hardware. The reason for that is usually the driver which doesn’t exist for the specific operating system. When we upgrade to newer version of Windows, we may need to get new drivers for our hardware. If the vendor doesn’t update the drivers for the newer operating system, we might find our hardware no longer works properly. So, because of that we will notice that many people are still installing Windows XP for hardware and software compatibility. Sometimes new hardware will only have drivers for newer operating system, for example, for Windows 8 and not for Vista and older. In that case we would have to upgrade to Windows 8 in order to use that hardware.

New Features in New Versions

Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 come with new features which we don’t have in XP. For example, those features are Aero, search and indexing capabilities, sidebar and gadgets, improvements with Media Center, BitLocker which offers encryption of the data on your hard drives, etc. All these features are not available on Windows XP. When choosing between Vista and Windows 7, we will often find that Windows 7 is the better choice. Windows 7 is an update and an upgrade from Windows Vista, and is at least as compatible as Vista with hardware and software.

Windows Editions

In addition to choosing the operating system version, we will also need to choose the edition. Each edition has a subset of features for an intended market. Typically every Windows version has a Home edition, or a Home Premium. Those editions are intended for a small network in a home environment. The Home edition is the most basic and the most limited edition. Home Premium includes some additional features such as Aero, Media Center, as well as some other options. The Home edition is best suited for computers with very limited hardware capabilities.

Another edition, depending on the operating system version, is a Professional or Business edition. With professional or Business edition we have the ability to connect to a domain. So if we have a domain controller, we’ll need to choose a Professional edition. Many of the features in the Home Premium edition are also included in the Professional edition.

There’s also an Ultimate version which is a combination of the Home Premium and the Professional edition. One other feature is the additional language support. Unlike Windows Vista Ultimate, the Windows 7 Ultimate edition does not include the Windows Ultimate Extras feature or any exclusive features. Windows 7 Professional/Ultimate editions support running Windows XP as a virtual computer.

A final edition we might see is Enterprise. Enterprise is similar to the Ultimate edition, but it is intended for businesses. It’s just like the Ultimate edition with different licensing conditions. When buying the operating system for ourselves, we will typically choose the Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate edition. When we buy OS for our business environment, we will typically choose Professional or the Enterprise edition if we were a large business.

32-bit vs 64-bit

When we purchase the operating system, we specify whether we want the 32-bit version (x86) or the 64-bit version (x64 or IA-64). The version we choose depends on our hardware. The 32-bit version can run on either 32-bit or 64-bit processors. However, when running the 32-bit version of Windows, we are limited to the capabilities of that 32-bit operating system. One of the biggest limitation of the 32-bit operating system is that it can only address up to 4 GB of memory. With 32-bit operating system, we also have to have 32-bit drivers, and we can only run 32-bit applications. So for example, if we only have 32-bit drivers for our hardware, or if we only have 32-bit version of some important application, we will have to use the 32-bit operating system in order to use those. We may have a computer with a 64-bit processor, but in this case we will choose the 32-bit operating system, and use the 32-bit drivers to run some hardware. A 32-bit operating system cannot run a 64-bit application.

The 64-bit version of the operating system can only be installed on a 64-bit processor. The 64-bit operating system and processor do not have the 4 GB memory limitation, so if we want to use more than 4 GB of memory, we should choose the 64-bit operating system. The 64-bit operating system also requires 64-bit drivers. This is where compatibility might be an issue, because we might find that hardware that we currently have does not have the corresponding 64-bit drivers. Because of that we might not be able to use some older hardware devices in our 64-bit configuration. A 64-bit operating system can run both 32-bit or 64-bit applications.

Hardware Compatibility and Requirements

When upgrading to the new Windows version we have to be sure that our hardware supports the new operating system. We should check the hardware compatibility list (HCL) on Microsoft’s website or visit the hardware or software vendor’s website and check for operating system compatibility. We should obtain the latest driver for all hardware. If we will use 64-bit OS, we have to get 64-bit drivers before installation to ensure that devices are compatible with 64-bit operating systems. If we are installing a new version of Windows on an existing computer, the best way to ensure compatibility is to run the Upgrade Advisor tool for the target operating system version. The upgrade advisor analyzes current hardware, drivers, and applications to ensure that everything is compatible. The resulting report will show us if our computer meets the required minimum hardware for the operating system, and notifies us of potential problems with drivers and applications. It also identifies valid upgrade paths from our current operating system version.

Details About Different Versions

We have separate articles in which we describe different Windows versions in more detail. To see specific editions for different Windows versions and their hardware requirements, check out these articles:

Types of Installations

One of the important things when upgrading our Windows is to identify the type of installation we will need to perform. Two most important types are Clean Installation and In-place upgrade. We have a separate article in which we describe different types of Windows installations in more detail, so be sure to check it out.

Remember

Windows comes in different versions and editions. We have to ensure compatibility of our system before we decide to move from one version of Windows to another. We also have to decide which Windows edition we will want to use.

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