Enterprises will get to choose between two versions: Vista Business and Vista Enterprise. Consumers can choose from Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate. Users in certain developing nations will be able to buy a stripped-down Starter version.
The key differences between the Business and Enterprise versions of the software will be the inclusion in Enterprise of drive encryption and virtual machine software that will allow applications designed for Unix or older Windows versions to run.
Both will feature Aero, the new user interface, which features glass-like window transparency effects and a 3D window navigation option called Flip. Vista Home Premium and Ultimate will also feature Aero, but Basic, which presumably is designed to be run on cheaper machines, will not.
As has long been expected, the higher-priced Vistas will have a much more powerful search engine than previous versions of Windows, integrated across the OS. The Home Basic version will instead come with a Search Explorer tool.
For businesses, the Enterprise edition will come with BitLocker Drive Encryption, which can use either a TPM hardware cryptography module or software key to encrypt data when the computer is powered down. It is designed to help organizations concerned about losing laptops.
Also in Enterprise is Virtual PC Express, which allows users to emulate older versions of Windows when they are running legacy applications not designed for Vista. It also includes a Subsystem for Unix-based Applications to provide similar functionality for Unix software.
For consumers, only the Ultimate and Premium editions will be able to run on a Tablet PC, and only those operating systems will have Media Center, which will enable them to burn DVDs, connect to their Xbox 360 consoles, and watch TV.
All six versions will be available in the second half of the year. Microsoft has not said specifically when. Beta versions, known as community technology previews, have been available for many months. Pricing has not yet been confirmed.