If you’re looking to purchase Windows 8, there are two main editions you need to concern yourself with: Windows 8 (similar to the Home edition in previous versions of Windows) and Windows 8 Pro.
Update: Windows 10 is coming out soon, and we’ve got an updated guide to let you know whether you need the Professional edition of Windows 10 or not.
Windows 8 has fewer editions than previous versions of Windows. We’ll be ignoring the other two here: Windows 8 Enterprise is targeted at larger organizations, while Windows RT is for ARM-based devices and is another beast entirely.
Upgrading to Professional
Even if you buy copy of the standard edition of Windows 8 (or you purchase a computer that comes with Windows 8 instead of Windows 8 Pro), you can upgrade to the Professional edition of Windows 8 at any time.
To do so, use the Add Features to Windows 8 control panel (known as “Windows Anytime Upgrade” in Windows 7). Purchase the Windows 8 Pro Pack from this window and you’ll get the professional features without needing to reinstall Windows. You won’t even have to leave your chair.
The standard edition of Windows 8 comes preinstalled on most computers you’ll find in stores. While it’s no longer known as the “Home” edition of Windows, it’s similar to the Home editions of previous versions of Windows. It contains the features most users would use.
Love it or hate it, the new Windows 8 interface, along with the new start screen, charms, modern applications, and Windows Store are present in all versions of Windows 8. The Windows desktop, complete with a variety of great new features and security improvements, is still present. Internet Explorer 10, integrated antivirus, and most other things you’d expect are integrated into the “core” edition of Windows 8.
Media Center Functionality
Surprisingly, some media center functionality is no longer included with the standard edition of Windows 8. You can’t play DVDs out-of-the-box or use the Windows Media Center application on the standard edition of Windows 8.
To access these features, you’ll need to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro and purchase the Windows 8 Media Center Pack from within the Add Features to Windows 8 window mentioned above. You can actually get Windows 8 Media Center Pack for free until January 31, 2013 – assuming you’re using Windows 8 Pro.
Microsoft has done this to save on licensing costs – licensing DVD playback and the codecs necessary for media center costs money, which no longer makes as much sense when many new computers come without DVD drives and people are increasingly streaming video from online services like Netflix.
This may seem like a problem, but it really isn’t. If you want to play DVDs, you don’t need to pay a cent – just install VLC. Click here for more information about playing DVDs on Windows 8.
Windows Media Player is still present on Windows 8 (except on Windows RT) and you can continue to use other media-playing applications. Very few people used Windows Media Center – you’ll only need to purchase the Windows Media Center Pack if you want to use Windows Media Center itself.
If you use your Windows computer as a media center PC, you can try using something like XBMC instead. You may also want to try using the modern applications for Netflix, Hulu, and other services – their full-screen interfaces could be at home on a TV.
Windows 8 Pro
The remaining features in the Professional edition are targeted towards businesses and “enthusiast” geeks that like taking advantage of more advanced features. Many of these features can be replaced by free alternatives on the standard edition of Windows 8.
- Domain-Joining & Group Policy: Organizations using Windows Server domains and Group Policy will need the Professional edition of Windows 8.
- Remote Desktop Server: You can connect to remote desktop servers from a Windows 8 PC, but you’ll need the Professional edition of Windows 8 to host a Remote Desktop server. However, you can use third-party remote desktop services like TeamViewer or VNC on the standard edition of Windows 8.
- BitLocker and Encrypting File System: Windows’ encryption features are only offered on Windows 8 Professional. If you don’t swear by these features, you can install TrueCrypt for free on all editions of Windows 8.
- Hyper-V: The Hyper-V technology found in Windows Server can be used by Windows 8 Pro users to run virtual machines. Everyone else can just download VirtualBox or VMware Player for free.
- Virtual Hard Disk Booting: Windows 8 Pro can boot from a VHD file. If this means nothing to you, you don’t need this feature.
We’ve also covered more free alternatives to features found in the professional editions of Windows.
Unfortunately, Windows To Go, a useful feature that allows you to install Windows 8 to a USB drive and boot it on any computer, is only available on the Enterprise edition of Windows 8 – not even Pro users can use it.
You should now have some idea of whether you need Windows 8 Professional. if you’re a business that depends on domains and group policy, the answer is an unequivocal yes. If you’re not a business, you’ll only need if it you absolutely require Windows Media Center or another “enthusiast” feature, such as BitLocker.