Windows Vista pricing: Not so comparable

With recent news from Microsoft about Vista's pricing, we know for sure how much Windows Vista will cost when it shows up next year. And with five versions of the OS--Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate--there are ten prices involved: Five full-version prices and five upgrade ones.

Microsoft says that it's "committed to keeping prices low for customers," and that Vista versions will go for the same price as "comparable" XP editions. With Windows XP Home listing for US$99 (upgrade version) and US$200 (full version), and Windows XP Pro listing for US$200 (upgrade) and US$300 (full), that would mean that Microsoft is saying that Vista Home Basic is comparable to XP Home, and Vista Business is comparable to XP Pro.

In fact, it's not quite that simple. Vista Basic, which targets folks with (appropriately enough!) basic needs is dumbed-down in a critical way that has no counterpart in XP Home--it doesn't have the flashy Aero transparency effects that are maybe the single most-hyped new feature in Vista. Consequently, options for Vista Basic will be a cost-cutting sacrifice in a way that choosing XP Home simply isn't. The mere existence of two other home-oriented editions of Vista--Home Premium and Ultimate--acknowledges that fact.

Home Premium, which will list for US$159 (upgrade) and US$239 (full) is, roughly speaking, equivalent to today's Windows Media Center Edition, with the Tablet PC's pen features thrown in. And as the cheapest version of Vista that has Aero, I believe it's the one which many reasonably serious Windows users who are content with XP Home will choose. (Media Center is only available as an OEM product--albeit one that's readily available if you're building a PC yourself--not a shrinkwrapped box, so it's hard to do the math on how its price compares to that of Home Premium.)

Meanwhile, Vista Ultimate, at US$259 for an upgrade or US$399 for the full version, is more expensive than any current edition of Windows. And with its kitchen-sink approach--it has all the stuff from all the other home and business versions--I think it's the one which many home users who now choose XP Pro will go for. (Vista Business, the version that Microsoft says is comparable to XP Pro, will apparently lack some of the entertainment-oriented stuff that's in Vista Home Premium.)

To summarize: I think a lot of XP Home types will come to the conclusion that Vista Home Premium is the best upgrade for them, and a lot of XP Pro fans will instinctively turn to XP Ultimate. If I'm right, that means a lot of folks will be paying $59 more than the list price of the version of Windows they're currently using. With millions and millions of people moving to Vista, of course, Microsoft has every reason to give as many of them as possible a reason to plunk down US$59 more apiece than they might otherwise have done.

Even with today's pricing announcement, there are some unknowns that will have an impact on how much Vista ends up costing us...such as:

How widely available will the versions be? Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate will presumably all be readily available online; it'll be interesting to see if retailers like Best Buy and Staples make room for all of 'em. (Vista Enterprise will only be available to volume-license customers.)

What impact will the new versions and their prices have on new PCs that are preloaded with Vista? As far as I know, Microsoft hasn't released its OEM pricing for all these versions. But it seems likely that a PC preloaded with Vista Home Premium will cost a bit more than one preloaded with XP Home, and that one that comes with Vista Ultimate will cost more than an XP Pro one.

How widely available will all the new versions be on new PCs? Will direct vendors like Dell and Gateway let you choose between Basic, Premium, Business, and Ultimate? Will retailers have plenty of machines with all four of these Vista variants? (You've got to think that Basic will only be commonplace on really cheap computers--it'd be a bummer to buy a brand-new computer that can't make Vista look its best. But it'll be interesting to see whether Premium, Business, and Ultimate will all show up frequently on retail PCs, or whether only one or two of the versions will tend to prevail.)

One more question: Assuming you're planning to upgrade to Vista sooner or later, which version are you inclined to buy?

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