Want a good Windows experience? Focus first on hardware

Someone recently asked me what version of Windows I recommend deploying on a system. They pointed to the various Windows versions available, including Enterprise SKUs, Windows 10 Professional and Windows 10 Home. For most small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) and home users, I recommend Windows 10 or 11 Professional — which you can move up to even if you initially purchase Windows 10 or 11 Home. Professional gives you more control over updates and exposes local group policies so you can control more items in the OS.

Another important point is to make sure the computer you buy has appropriate hardware. In particular, that means having a solid-state drive (SSD).

The other day I helped someone set up a new PC with Windows 11 and realized again how important having an SSD is. After boot-up, the PC’s mechanical hard drive was pegged at 100% disk usage and the system was basically unusable. I opened Device Manager and confirmed my suspicion: the drive wasn’t an SSD. I let the system sit for a while — a long while — until the disk utilization was reasonable.  While the laptop had enough RAM, it clearly did not have the appropriate hard drive for Windows 11 (or even Windows 10).

Another issue when buying PCs right now involves supply chain constraints; some businesses are having to buy hardware with any version of Windows and then upgrading.

Most likely, you will only find systems with Windows 11 Home, not Windows 10, in the stores. While Windows 11 remains a work in progress, it can be tamed through the use of third-party tools such as Start11, which reverts the menu system back to what’s like in Windows 10. If you decide to keep the centered Windows 11 menu system, be aware that Microsoft is in the process of making more changes to the Start Menu system and the Task Manager in response to feedback. Once you purchase Windows 11 Home you can easily purchase an upgrade to Windows 11 Professional, which makes it easier to defer feature releases, pause updates, and set update settings than having to use registry keys or other workarounds.

If you’re deploying Windows 11 as an SMB or for a home office, you might run into issues with older hardware such as home NAS devices that rely on SMB version 1 file sharing. In the future, Windows 11 will be shipped with SMBv1 disabled, meaning you may need to junk your old — and probably now unsupported — NAS devices, or find a way to enable SMBv2 or SMBv3 to continue to use them. My advice: find a community forum for your NAS device and you should get real-world advice on whether it’s better to retire the old system or remove it from your network.

If you’re a small business with 300 users or less and need a license to an Office suite, I suggest looking into Microsoft Business Premium. It includes the latest version of Office hosted email and, most importantly, several tools to allow additional protection and support. In particular, it includes Azure AD p1 which allows you to set up Conditional access based on device state or location and group. (This is helpful for setting policies for multi-factor authentication that kick in when someone logs in from a risky location or performs risky actions.) And it includes Defender for Business, an Endpoint Detection and Remediation tool that expands on Microsoft Defender antivirus; it actually tracks the actions on a workstation and sends alerts about any malicious activity.

In addition, it also offers up actionable tasks to increase network security such as ensuring that third-party software on my network is patched and Attack Surface Reduction (ASR) rules are enabled. ASRs can provide additional protection for a network, making your system more resilient to attacks. If you are a company with more than 300 users, Microsoft offers two additional enterprise licenses, an E3 or an E5. These versions offer even more security features. You can purchase either the operating system license alone or combine it with the Microsoft 365 licensing suite for additional protection for Office.

To reiterate: choosing the best version of Windows will depend on which additional security features you want. It’s generally easy to upgrade or downgrade to a version of Windows that best meets your needs after you’ve got your hardware in place. But it’s not always so easy to upgrade hardware, and buying the wrong laptop or PC can lock you into an unsatisfactory computing experience. So before you get too worked up about which version of Windows you need, opt for the best hardware you can get. Then you’ll be well-prepared to run whichever version of Windows 10 or 11 you want.