With the release of Windows XP, a common question that is asked is which version is right for a variety of customer scenarios. Windows 95 and Windows 98 played equally well at home or at work, but with Windows ME the message was clear, the product was designed for home use. Windows 2000 and its Windows NT predecessors were always targeted towards the business market. With Windows XP, the choice between Home and Professional should be an easy one - Professional has a host of additional capabilities designed for making usage in a networked environment more productive, and to take advantage of capabilities more suited to a business environment. We can split these differences into a three different categories: mobility features, security, and business network solutions.
Perhaps the biggest difference for mobile workers is Remote Desktop. This capability allows a user to connect to their own desktop machine from a remote location, as if they were sitting directly in front of the machine. This capability is based on technology delivered in the Terminal Services component of Windows 2000 Server, but in Windows XP Professional it is enabled for single-user access. This capability shouldn't be confused with Remote Assistance, a help and support feature that is also available in both Home and Professional, which allows someone you trust to give you help in using your PC from a remote location.
For laptop users, another mobility feature that is only in Professional is Offline Folders. With this capability, a laptop user can make network files and folders available on the laptop regardless of whether the machine is connected to the network. This allows the user to be able to effortlessly access network data, and have it automatically synchronised and updated once back in on the network. This can help to avoid the scenario where you are sitting on a plane and decide to update some of your files, and realise that you didn't copy them down from the network share.
The last mobile difference I will mention is the Encrypting File System. We all know someone that has lost a laptop or had one stolen, and while the replacement cost of a machine is certainly a concern, the confidential data that is on that machine is certainly something to worry about as well. With Professional's ability to encrypt your data files in a non-intrusive manner, users can work with their regular applications in the regular way, and know that their files are being saved in a secure manner. Even if other users gain physical access to the machine, these files are encrypted, so the user can rest assured that the data is secure.
Enchanced security capabilities in the Professional edition also include more granularity in the granting of access to resources on the PC. The Home edition really only allows guest access to these shared resources, whereas Professional allows the user to select the appropriate levels of access for a variety of users, including accounts from the company's domain structure. For users of Home edition, this makes resource sharing a much easier task, and for Professional it makes it much more flexible.
Additional security technologies that only Professional supports include IPSec, Kerberos and smart-card technologies. For most home users, there is generally little, if any, need for these capabilities. For those who may need to access their corporate network environment remotely, Professional will be a better solution than Home. Users can do an in-place upgrade from the Home edition to the Professional edition while retaining their existing settings. It's also important to point out at this time that Professional is a true superset of the Home edition, no functionality is lost during the upgrade.
There are also differences in the upgrade capabilities of previous operating systems to the different Windows XP versions. You can upgrade to XP Home edition from Windows 98 or Me but not from 95, NT Workstation or 2000 Professional. Windows 95 upgrades aren't supported for a variety of reasons, but the biggest reason is that the age and capabilities of most machines that run Windows 95 won't give a very good experience with XP. Many of these machines are close to six years old and usually Pentium class. NT Workstation and 2000 Professional machines wouldn't have been good candidates for upgrade installations to XP Home because they would have lost functionality such as domain support. You can upgrade to XP Professional from any of those operating systems, except Windows 95.
When it comes to participating on a company network, the additional functionality of XP Professional really shines. Perhaps the most important capability here is Professional's ability to join and participate in an Active Directory's Intellimirror capabilities. Intellimirror technologies provide a centralised location for managing Windows 2000 and Windows XP Professional machines on a corporate network, and includes such capabilities as roaming user profiles, automatic deployment of applications across the network, as well as a centralised way of locking down and customising the user desktop environment. Professional can also take advantage of additional installation techniques such as the Windows 2000 Remote Installation Service to allow unattended installs to be delivered to new machines on the network.
For those who have machines that need to participate in many different network environments, the Stored User Names and Passwords capabilities in Professional make it the preferred solution. This feature allows users to authenticate to remote networks and to access shares on domains without needing to continually type in the relevant user names and passwords. On an XP Home edition computer, Domain-based credentials cannot be stored; they will need to be entered during each session. Home and Professional users, however, both benefit from the ability for a remote access connection to use the credentials of the remote access connection while accessing resources through that connection. This feature works with dial-up and virtual private network connections.
The number of simultaneous incoming network connections also differs between the Home and Professional editions. Home is limited to five connections, while Professional is limited to 10 file-sharing connections. Even in smaller networks, Professional should be the default choice.
Are these the only differences? No, there are some others, including dual-processor support in Professional but not in Home, some differences in the user interface default settings and a couple of others, but the ones listed in this article should give you good reasons to consider only XP Professional for business networking needs. XP Home will do the job for the majority of home users, but if you know that machines might be taken into the office occasionally or used on a regular basis for remotely accessing corporate resources, it is a good idea to consider installing Professional in these situations. For laptop usage, it is my belief that XP Professional should be the default choice on this class of machine.
Mark O'Shea is a senior technology specialist with Microsoft Australia