Now that Windows 8 is out, you may be asking yourself all sorts of questions about what to buy, assuming you've decided to. Questions like...
"Do I get Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro?"
"Now I'm seeing Windows 8 RT - what's that?"
"Do I get an Upgrade version?"
"What's the non-upgrade version called?"
"Why is one copy of Windows 8 Pro so much more expensive than another I'm seeing?"
"Do I get a 32-bit or 64-bit version?"
Between my Windows 8: Important Facts and my Installing Windows 8 FAQ pages, I think I answer most of those questions. However, I thought at least a blog post was in order to bring it all together and help you make sense of the Microsoft Madness!
So here goes:
Windows 8 Pro vs Windows 8 vs Windows 8 RT
Windows 8 Pro is the highest Windows 8 tier. Over the non-Pro version, you get access to Remote Desktop (the server end), the ability to participate in a domain, and some other back-end, geeky stuff. Nothing most home users are going to notice. You're also "able" to purchase Windows Media Center only if you have Windows 8 Pro so go with Pro if you're planning on that.
If you're familiar with Windows 7, I liken Windows 8 Pro to Windows 7 Ultimate or Windows 7 Professional.
Windows 8 (without the "Pro") is sometimes called the core or standard version of Windows 8. The only things it lacks were the things I mentioned above that come with Windows 8 Pro.
Until February 1, 2013, Windows 8 Pro is the only thing you can buy. From now until then, the only place you'll find Windows 8 (standard/core) is on a new computer where it was preinstalled in the factory.
Windows 8 RT is also only available preinstalled, and that goes from now until the end of time. Probably. This version of Windows 8 is designed only for devices that use ARM processors - mainly small tablet devices (think: iPad size).
Summary: You can only buy Windows 8 Pro right now, and that's just fine and dandy: $40 is a really good deal for an entire version of Windows. Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT are only available on new computers.
Upgrade vs "Non-Upgrade"
An upgrade version of Windows 8 (standard) and Windows 8 Pro is called just that - an "Upgrade." You need a previous version of Windows installed if you want to buy this version. Yes, you can do a clean install from a Windows 8 upgrade, in case you were wondering. Yes, that $40 deal from Microsoft, and most similarly priced Windows 8 deals you see in the store, are all Upgrade licensed.
The "full" version of Windows 8 is referred to as a Personal Use License for System Builder version. You don't need to already have an older version of Windows to install Windows 8 with this license. This is the choice for new computer builds, new virtual machine installations, etc. This license will cost you more.
You may have also seen something called a Windows 8 Pro Pack. This is simply a new product key that you can enter on your Windows 8 (standard) computer that upgrades your version of Windows 8 to Windows 8 Pro. Don't buy this unless you have a new computer with Windows 8 preinstalled and you've decided that you want the bells and whistles that come with the Pro version.
Summary: Go with the "Upgrade" license of Windows 8 if you already have Windows 7, Vista, or XP, even if you want to clean install. Go with the "System Builder" license if you're building a new PC or virtual machine.
32-bit vs 64-bit
Ideally, you would install a 64-bit version of Windows 8 no matter what. You get better performance, support for more RAM, and some other benefits. However, some computers don't have 64-bit hardware and thus can't run a 64-bit operating system or software.
When you download Windows 8 Pro Upgrade from Microsoft, you'll get the 64-bit version if it's compatible with your computer. If not, you'll get the 32-bit download. If you purchase a Windows 8 Pro Upgrade from a retail store or online, you can choose which you'd like to install once you get it home.
System Builder versions of Windows 8 are packaged separately so you'll need to decide on 32-bit vs 64-bit prior to your purchase.
If you're not sure if you have a 64-bit computer (the prerequisite for installing a 64-bit version of Windows 8), you can check from the System applet in Control Panel in whatever version of Windows you have right now.
Summary: If your computer supports a 64-bit version of Windows 8, install that. If it doesn't, install the 32-bit version. It's not the end of the world if you need to install a 32-bit version of Windows 8.
Hopefully the explanations above help a little. Do you have any more questions? Ask away in the comments!
Windows 8 Pro Boxshot Image © Microsoft