Some of the most powerful Windows features are only available in Professional or Enterprise editions of Windows. However, you don’t have to upgrade to Windows Professional to use these powerful features – use these free alternatives instead.
These features include the ability to access your desktop remotely, encrypt your hard drive, run Windows XP in a window, change advanced settings in group policy, use Windows Media Center, run an operating system off a USB stick, and more.
Remote Desktop Server
Home versions of Windows come with the ability to connect to remote desktop sessions, but they can’t act as remote desktop servers. If you want to access your home Windows desktop remotely – either over the network or over the Internet — you can use VNC instead. VNC works similarly to remote desktop — after you install a VNC server on your home computer, you can install a VNC client on another computer and access your home computer remotely. VNC clients are available for all platforms – Windows, Mac, Linux, even Android and iOS.
UltraVNC is a good, open-source solution – it includes both a server and a client application. There are also other, less-geeky alternatives to VNC, such as TeamViewer.
BitLocker Drive Encryption
BitLocker is a full-disk encryption feature that encrypts the data on your hard disk. At boot, the data is decrypted, often with a password. Assuming you leave your computer powered off, people can’t access your data without your password or key – your files will look like random gibberish without it. Unfortunately, BitLocker is only available in Windows 7 Ultimate and Windows 8 Professional – you can’t even use BitLocker if you have Windows 7 Professional edition.
Instead, you can use TrueCrypt to encrypt an entire hard disk – you’ll have to type your password or provide your key at boot time, before Windows loads. TrueCrypt can also be used to create encrypted containers and encrypt files without encrypting your entire hard drive.
Windows XP Mode
Windows XP mode offers a virtualized Windows XP environment on Windows 7. It’s useful for running old applications that just don’t work properly on newer versions of Windows. Essentially, Windows XP mode is a pre-packed Windows XP virtual machine that uses Microsoft’s Virtual PC.
If you’d like to use Windows XP mode (and you have an old Windows XP disc lying around), you don’t have to upgrade – you can install the free VirtualBox or VMware Player and install Windows XP in a virtual machine. The virtual machine will function similarly to Windows XP mode, allowing you to run your old software in a window on your desktop.
This also works on Windows 8, where Windows XP Mode has been removed.
Group Policy Settings
Professional versions of Windows include the Group Policy editor, which can easily change some of the more advanced settings in Windows. It’s often used by system administrators to tweak settings for large networks of Windows PCs – however, you may find it useful even on your home computer. The local Group Policy editor provides an easy way to change a variety of settings, and you may come across web pages on the web telling you to change a certain setting in Group Policy.
However, much of the time, you can change the same setting in the Windows registry – although it may be less user-friendly. If you ever come across a group policy setting you want to change, do a quick web search and look for the corresponding registry entry you can change.
If you also have access to computer running a Professional edition of Windows, you can determine which registry value a group policy setting modifies and change it yourself.
Back Up to Network (Windows 7)
The Windows Backup feature included with Windows 7 won’t allow you to backup to a network location unless you have the Professional version of Windows. If you’re using the Home editions of Windows 7, you can use another backup solution.
Microsoft’s SyncToy is a popular, free backup tool that works on Windows 7. You can also create a scheduled task that runs SyncToy for automatic backups. If you’re looking for another option, the open-source FreeFileSync is another solid application that’s worked well for us.
Windows Media Center (Windows 8)
With Windows 8, Windows Media Center has been removed from the Home edition of Windows. You can upgrade your copy of Windows to the Professional edition, or try a third-party media center solution if you depend on Windows Media Center. One extremely popular one is XBMC, although you may also be interested in Plex.
Windows To Go (Windows 8)
Windows To Go is a brand-new feature in Windows 8. It allows Windows 8 to be installed on a USB drive and run on any computer – just plug the USB drive into any computer, restart the computer, and you’ll be using your Windows 8 environment. Unfortunately, this feature is only available in Windows 8 Enterprise – even Professional edition users don’t get to use this.
If you want to install an operating system on a USB stick and take it with you, running it on any computer you please, you can use a Linux distribution like Ubuntu. Use UNetbootin to install Ubuntu or any other Linux distribution you like to a USB stick – you’ll have your own personal browser (both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome run on Linux) and desktop that you can take with you and run on any computer.
Read More: Create a Bootable Ubuntu USB Flash Drive
Do you have use another alternative to a feature found only in the more expensive editions of Windows? Leave a comment and let us know about it!
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 09/12/12