One of the most common questions I get asked is about the difference between the two major distributions of Windows: Windows Home and the slightly more expensive Windows Pro. The answer to this question is a bit of a rabbit hole, as it starts dealing in some of the enterprise side functions of Windows that the average user will never use much less need to know about. I’ll be touching on a few of these, but I intend to focus on the ones that are more likely to be used or noticed by most users. Additionally, I’ll be focusing on the Windows 10 version of these differences as it is the current version of Windows, however with a few minor exceptions these differences have been pretty similar since Windows Vista.
So let’s get right into it. What is the high level difference between Windows Home and Pro? The simplest way to put it is that Windows Home is a paired down version of Windows Pro lacking in some features (especially around networking) that are useful in an office environment where computers are administered by IT staff. Traditionally, home users haven’t had much of a need for these added features. However, as home networks continue to become more powerful and complex, it’s becoming increasingly common for these added features to actually be an asset.
Still with me? Good, let’s go through a breakdown as to what the various functions that Windows Pro has that Windows Home does not, and how they might actually be useful to the average user.
Windows Pro provides the computer the ability to join and be administered by a domain. A windows domain is a rabbit hole onto itself (there are literally entire courses and certifications based around this one aspect of windows). At its core, a domain is a method of managing a network and the computers therein where everything is controlled and policed by a central server (appropriately called a domain controller).
It’s not something that is frequently seen outside of offices. I only mention it because in my experience, it’s usually the go to answer if someone asks a sales person what the difference between Windows Home and Windows Pro is.
The ability to host a remote desktop is arguably the single most useful thing that Windows Pro has over Windows Home. Remote desktop is exactly what it says, the ability to have one computer accessing another computer’s desktop remotely. I’ve seen this used for everything from remotely controlling a media computer to remotely grabbing homework that was forgotten at home. Windows Home can connect to another computer, but cannot be connected via this method. Pro can go either direction.
Myself, I largely use it to administer my various laptops and tablets from my main computer, leaving them tucked away out of the way.
There are a number of services that attempt to duplicate this functionality (Teamviewer, logmein, even some anti-viruses), however they all have the problem of routing through their servers on the internet which introduces both latency and (potential) privacy and security issues.
Group Policy Management
The group policy manager is something that allows a user with administrator privileges to lock most Windows settings or turn entire features of Windows off. The most common use I’ve seen outside of actual office settings is for allowing a parent finer control over their child’s use of a computer than Windows Home would allow. In this context, it’s usually used for simple things like preventing someone from changing a background image.
Assigned Access (introduced in Windows 8) is quite possibly the most overlooked and most useful function that Windows Pro has that Windows Home does not. Assigned Access allows a user account to be locked into the use of one and only one metro style app. Switching out of the app becomes forbidden, and exiting it cause the user to return to the log in screen. Microsoft touts this as ideal for a Kiosk in a mall or similar scenario. I’ve never seen it used for that, but I have seen it used by parents to allow their child access to a favorite game while keeping them locked out of the computer at large.
Unfortunately, assigned access currently only works with the so called “metro style” apps obtained through the Windows Store and does not work with desktop apps. Even so, it’s still a consideration.
So which one is better? The cheaper but slightly paired down Home edition? Or the slightly more expensive but more complete Pro edition? Ultimately that is a decision that should be left to each end user.
My own opinion is strongly in favor of Windows Pro. I view the operating system as akin to the soul of the computer. I never want to find myself in a situation where I’m prevented from doing something because I lack the correct edition of Windows.