Most people need all the help they can get when they buy a new PC. Give them bad advice and theyre very likely to take it. Lately, Ive been hearing and seeing a lot of advice that home users should use Windows XP Pro. Usually the reasoning is some vague variation of “its more secure.”
Not only is this bad advice, its actually worse advice than it used to be. There are basically three editions of Windows XP: Windows XP Home, Windows XP Pro, and the new Windows XP Media Center Edition. Think of Media Center Edition as a hybrid with some entertainment-related features. Ill go into more detail below.
From the outset, XP Pro had very few features that Home lacked, but they were important features. The most important one has always been the ability to log into a Windows domain. The others of importance are support for EFS (Encrypted File System) and the ability to act as a server for Remote Desktop Connection.
As of the 2005 Edition, Windows XP Media Center Edition has EFS and Remote Desktop. EFS is certainly a security feature, although not one frequently useful for home PCs, even for home notebooks. As much as I like Remote Desktop, I have to engage in some serious sophistry to call it a security feature. There are a number of other feature differences, mostly obscure or very high-end. Here is Microsofts explanation, from the Media Center Edition 2005 FAQ:
Since Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is a superset of Windows XP Home, and they are priced the same, theres no reason to buy XP Home. This also leaves the ability to log into a Windows domain as the only reason left to prefer Windows XP Pro to Windows XP Home.
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Logging into a domain is a very important feature for clients on managed networks, where numerous important security features then come into play, including the ability for administrators to control the desktop appearance and rights of users; to install and remove applications on their desktops; and to control their access to network resources. But logging into a domain is not a feature for which many home users have a need, because almost none of them have access to a Windows domain.
So why does XP Pro have a reputation for being the more secure version? A cousin-in-law of mine in Pittsburgh took an evening computer course at Carnegie Mellon with a professor who happens to be renowned, and Im impressed that he taught such a course. But he told cousin Renees class that they should get XP Pro.
I hear this sort of thing all the time in similar venues and even from some vendors, who probably make more money off a sale of Pro than Home or Media Center.
Whenever I go to Dell.com and try to configure a PC, even on the “Entertainment PCs” where Media Center Edition is the default configuration choice, the top line on the screen says “Dell recommends Windows® XP Professional.” Why do they recommend it? Maybe they recommend it not necessarily for this PC, but just in general as a good thing, in the way they might recommend fuel-efficient cars. Personally, I would have to guess that the recommendation is a message to the customer.
There is one point that may explain some of the confusion, especially where colleges are concerned. Ive heard of colleges recommending to incoming students who bring PCs that they get Windows XP Pro. Is it because they run Windows domains and want to have the log-on to the campus LAN? Or is it the same misunderstanding? If they actually do run a domain for students (which seems unlikely to me), its true that a lot of students and parents will not think to spend $150 more for Pro unless theyre instructed to do so.
XP was the first Windows generation in a long time that was targeted at both businesses and consumers. NT Workstation and Windows 2000 Professional were never marketed as consumer products. Microsoft did try to define the distinctions between Pro and Home when XP came out, and youd think the name “Home” would send an unambiguous message. Theyve muddied the waters a bit with Media Center, which masks the inclusion of some extra features like EFS, and it is true that they profit from unnecessary purchases of Pro where Home would do. But the problem here seems to be uninformed urban legend that has emerged outside of Microsofts control.
The long list of Windows Vista editions might improve things a bit. If youre willing to base your decisions on the product name there seems to be more guidance there than in the past, and the vaguely named “Ultimate” version is targeted at home users.
Of course, with so much mythology out there about operating systems, theres nothing to stop people from jumping to the conclusion that the “Business” version is more secure than the “Home Premium” version. Id put money on it now.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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