Windows Home Vs Pro

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.

Domain Join

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.

Remote Desktop

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

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.

The Squeaky Wheel of Windows 10 Redux

This past Wednesday, I wrote a quick post about an issue with a Windows 10 update removing user software. I kept it fairly formal in the hopes of making it understandable. This post however will be my own less formal thoughts on the matter. In a few words, it has me worried. Don’t get me wrong, I see a lot of potential in Windows 10 and Microsoft has done some praiseworthy things with it. Even so, there is enough things about it that have me worried that I have not put it on my own systems. The biggest one of these is Microsoft’s handling of updates as it makes me worry about how Microsoft is starting to view its user and customers. One of the biggest things removed from Windows 10 that has received (in my opinion) too little media attention is the ability to disable automatic updates or disallow specific updates. Microsoft claims this is to make users safer by making sure they get security updates. To me, this is trading one known danger for another potentially more insidious one. The most obvious problem with not being able to say no to an update is that mistakes happen. Updates are ultimately just lines of code like anything else in a computer and can have errors in them that cause problems. In previous versions of Windows the solution was to simply uninstall and disallow the update in question until Microsoft could fix the issue. This is no longer an option with consumer versions of Windows 10 as even if you uninstall and update, Windows will just re download and install it. It’s not a small problem either. Since Windows 10’s release in July 2015, there has been no shortage of updates causing problems.  To name a few:
  • KB 3132372 broke Skype, the HP solutions center, and the ability to print with HP printers manufactured prior to 2011.
  • KB 3074681 would sometimes cause Windows Explorer to crash
  • KB 3097877 would cause outlook to crash when loading image heavy emails.
Those are just a few of the mistakes, to say nothing of Microsoft’s recent update removing certain programs without user notification or consent, which was presumably very much on purpose. Why presumably? Because Microsoft has stopped providing patch notes with each update instead bundling them into “cumulative updates”, which makes it hard to know what the actual intent of a patch is beyond observation based inference. It’s this paternalistic “We know what’s best” approach that has me worried. It’s rarely a good sign when a company feels as though it can shove things down its customer’s throats with impunity or when it tries to hide previously innocuous information.   I’m worried about what this may herald.   Here’s where I don my tinfoil hat. Perhaps Microsoft has stopped considering us “customers” at all, and is considering pushing advertisements to people’s desktops.   In a sense they already have with the “recommended apps” line on the new start menu (which thankfully you can still disable… for now). Perhaps they plan on selling analytics data to advertisers. It would explain why the default privacy settings send as much data to Microsoft as they do, and why even with everything set to full privacy some telemetric data (which Microsoft has remained vague on the purpose of) is still sent back to them. To me, a computer should serve its users interests above and to the exclusion of all else. The idea that Microsoft seems to think otherwise or refuses to see how these things might not be in their users interests worries me greatly.

The Squeaky Wheel of Windows 10

By and large Windows 10 is receiving positive reviews. It’s cleaner, more secure, easier to manage, and has several under the hood improvements. That being said, singing the praises of Windows 10 is not what this post is about. Like all things, Windows 10 is not perfect and has flaws. One of the more obvious one of those flaws is the topic of this post. A recent Windows 10 update has been observed by numerous sources to uninstall certain programs without user consent or notification. For the most part the programs removed were lesser known system hardware programs like Speccy, a program that gives advanced information on system specs. However, some of the programs were rather important like the AMD Catalyst Control Center the software used to manage AMD’s graphics cards. To make matters worse, these updates are not avoidable by the standard user. One of the big changes Microsoft introduced in Windows 10 was the removal of the ability for the user to disable automatic updates. Microsoft’s claim is that this was intended to help protect users by enforcing the installation of the latest security updates. Noble as that may be, it is not without risks as it means that the user no longer has a way to avoid updates that cause problems in the system or remove critical software.  

Mac Viruses

If there is one misconception I get tired of hearing repeatedly, it is the "Macs are immune to viruses" idea. They really aren't. What protects macs is a concept called security through obscurity. The idea being that despite their recent popularity Mac makes up a relatively small portion of the overall market. So if a hacker is going to write a virus they're likely to want to write it for the majority of systems rather than the minority.

That said, this is starting to change. As a rule Mac users haven't built up the same level of suspicion that PC users have, so tricking a Mac user into downloading an infected file tends to be significantly easier. This has caused some hackers to decide to target Mac users.

I don't write this to try and beat up on Mac or Mac users. I just want people to be aware that regardless of what type of computer you run, you need to take security seriously. In most cases this means installing an anti-virus program.

Wireless extenders

I25640157A couple of months ago I was hit with one of the most annoying network issues in existence: Bad wireless signal strength. We keep our router in the basement. Which works fine for my main computer which is a room over, but for the media centre on the main floor the signal was only barely good enough for web browsing. Youtube and Netflix were functionally unusable. At about the same time this became an issue we had gotten in some of D-Link's range extenders (serendipity is funny like that). So I decided to try it out. The idea of a wireless range extender is that you place it at some point (a point that can still get good signal that is) between yourself and the router, it then serves as a repeater for your wireless network. Hopefully, this will extend your networks range to cover any devices that are otherwise having trouble getting good signal. Setting it up is a little more difficult than I would have liked (which is to say, it doesn't work straight out of the box), but is no more difficult than setting up a router. Once properly configured the range extender worked exceedingly well and I was able to watch Netflix as easily on the media centre as my main machine.