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Skew or Screw?

Andy Vandervell

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Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) isn’t a terribly exciting term but it is an important one, especially in the technology and IT industries. Take any leading technology such as Intel’s Core 2 Duo architecture, and you’ll find there are dozens of different SKUs all serving a particular market.

A Stock Keeping Unit, pronounced ‘skew’, is a way of identifying different versions of the same product. For example, a pack of six soft drinks and a single can of soft drink are the same product but are different SKUs. The product is the same, but the way in which they’re delivered is subtly different.

Now, in its most basic form the SKU is simply an identifier, a way to track products according to their attributes. But, in the case of technology and software, it’s a rather more significant term since you’re not dealing with just cosmetic differences but fundamental differences in specification, features and ultimately functionality.

In many respects it’s a key part of the industry, and one can’t imagine doing away with different versions of processors, motherboards or graphics cards. But, at times, it seems as though multiple SKUs are used merely to serve a price point, or to simply increase the profit margin on a more expensive version of the same product.

Probably the best recent example is the launch of Microsoft’s new operating system, Vista. In total there are five Vista SKUs, though for home users there are really just three: Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate. If you’ve read our Vista review you’ll know that Home Basic, the cheapest of the three, is a complete waste of time and money. It lacks most of the more attractive features, with the shiny Aero interface conspicuous by its absence.

Home Basic is an example of the SKU at its worse. Doubtless Microsoft will claim it serves a purpose, giving an upgrade path to those who want only the very barebones of functionality. Unfortunately, for these users the upgrade is probably a needless one anyway. Without Aero you don’t get the aesthetic bonus of Vista, and ultimately you’re paying for a slightly tweaked OS that runs slower than XP on identical hardware.

Moreover, did I say there were three SKUs for home users? That was in fact a lie. So how many are there? At this point I feel a list is in what is required, and be warned it’s a long one. In all there’s: Home Basic OEM 32-bit, OEM 64-bit, Home Basic (Upgrade), Home Basic (Full Version), Home Premium OEM 32-bit, OEM 64-bit, Home Premium (Upgrade), Home Premium (Full Version), Ultimate OEM 32-bit, OEM 64-bit, Ultimate (Upgrade) and, not before time, Ultimate (Full Version).

Not including Business and Enterprise editions that’s twelve in all; all for the same base product. Even for the initiated it’s a slightly daunting prospect, and that’s before you’ve taken into account the various limitations on each version of Vista. If you’re upgrading then you’ll need to know what version of Windows you can upgrade from and to. So, for example, you can’t go from XP Professional to Vista Home Premium without a clean install and you can only use OEM versions on one system so think twice if you’re thinking of saving some money. In addition, you can’t upgrade from an OEM version of XP because you need the XP disc to verify your Vista upgrade.

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