1st Aug 2012 | 16:49
Windows RT is Windows 8 with restrictions
Introduction and Design
If you purchase a Microsoft Surface RT or Asus Vivo Tab RT, the snazzy tiles of Windows 8 will be there, but it'll be Windows RT powering your experience. But it has had numerous problems, with various manufacturers removing or winding down support.
What is Windows RT, you ask? Think of it as the mobile version of Windows 8. Built for the ARM processor that runs numerous smart devices, RT is built for the battery life and productivity mobile users expect, but lacks the compatibility of its big brother Windows 8.
It has also now been updated for the new 8.1 version of Windows - check out our Hands on: Windows RT 8.1 review
When long time Windows fans were worried about the big changes coming to their favorite operating system, Microsoft placated them with the promise of supporting "legacy" software.
The Desktop would be back, in a limited capacity, to run all the best Windows 7 programs.
Windows RT, however, doesn't support any Windows 7 software. While it has plenty of its own advantages, the aforementioned battery life and the essentials of Microsoft Office 2013 built right in, it has its quirks too.
However, RT's reliance on a Desktop that's not touch optimized results in a somewhat schizophrenic experience. There's also choosey Flash support, and limited compatibility makes it feel like Windows 8 lite.
So does Windows RT offer a good value for mobile customers? Or are there too many software limitations? Let's find out.
Just like the standard Windows 8, Windows RT is based around the new tiled interface. It looks great, but since it took the place of the stalwart Windows taskbar, there was no shortage of fan outcry.
The "Metro" UI can be decked out with numerous aesthetic options. There are over two-dozen color schemes to choose from, and 20 "tattoos," designs that take the place of background wallpaper.
The tattoos and color choices mesh nicely. The results range from surprisingly artsy and eclectic, to something that looks like whimsical wallpaper in a child's bedroom.
While the tattoos and color schemes give "Metro" a charming look, users are limited to images provided by Microsoft. This is likely due to the unusual dimensions of these backgrounds, which are wide enough to fit "Metro's" scrollable design. However, the lock screen, which you'll see whenever you boot or wake your Windows RT or Windows 8 device, can be customized. You're allowed to use any picture on the hard drive, which are also rather stylish.
If you've already been using Windows 8, your transition to a Windows RT device will be especially easy. Simply log in with your Microsoft account and your settings and Internet Explorer 10 bookmarks will follow you onto your new RT device. Any apps you own can be downloaded individually or en masse. What's more, Skydrive - Microsoft's cloud solution - will make sure your (compatible) files are at your fingertips.
The good old fashioned Windows Desktop makes an appearance in Windows RT, as well as Windows 8. That means customizable wallpaper, folders, the Recycle Bin and the Control Panel are here as well.
The Start button has been replaced with an Internet Explorer icon, which provides quick access to a familiar tabbed browsing experience. There's also icons for Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote, the four Microsoft Office 2013 programs generously included with Windows RT.
These are the only applications you'll run from the desktop. Windows RT, unlike the full Windows 8, doesn't allow third-party applications to be installed there.
However, there's still a lot of the classic Windows functionality that can be accessed. Drag and drop file management is still there, and this includes importing and organizing media from USB thumb sticks and hard drives.
There's even the old file registry and DOS prompt. These functions are strictly power user territory, making their inclusion a bit of anomaly, since the desktop is so limited on Windows RT. We're not sure what can be done with them besides damaging the Windows file structure.
Overall, Windows RT's tiled Start Screen has the exact same strengths and weaknesses as it does on Windows 8. It's very attractive, works extremely well on a touchscreen, and does an excellent job of displaying your primary apps. It takes some repetition to grow accustomed to the layout, but once you learn it, your fingers will fly.
When it comes to the more under-the-hood functions, such as adjusting settings or managing apps tiles, there's an additional learning curve. It's none too steep, but whether you're an old-school Windows fan or a first-time user, you'll find yourself climbing it.
The primary idea behind the interface of Windows 8 and Windows RT seems be developing an OS that's suited for either the mouse or touchscreen. Given the growing homogenization of the mobile and PC space that's a great idea. However, a few needling flaws prevent Windows RT from capitalizing on this as well as Windows 8 does.
On a mobile, touch-enabled device like the Microsoft Surface, RT's interface is a rousing success. By either touching the screen or swiping the touchpad with two fingers, you can scroll smoothly across the tiled Start Screen.
Since the taskbar has been axed, the Windows key now lets you jump between your current application and the Start Screen.
Some of "Metro's" other features are just as slick, but not terribly intuitive. The Charms bar - which houses a Search, Share, Devices, Settings and Start key - is opened by swiping from the right of the screen. With the mouse, bringing the cursor to the top right corner will trigger the charms.
Since it's accessible while in an app, on the desktop, or at the Start screen, the charm bar is the closest thing to a Start menu replacement Windows RT has.
Still, some of the most basic functions are a bit tucked away. For instance, the power button, which lets you sleep, shutdown or restart, is filed under settings. That doesn't really seem like a setting to us.
Searching can be equally obtuse, especially for a first-time user. For example, our search for Windows Update appears to give us no results. However, a closer look at the settings icon reveals that there are actually five results.
That's because the search defaulted to the app category, which has no relevant results for our query. We had to touch settings in order to see relevant results. As is often the case with Windows RT and Windows 8 in general, the results are there, they're just organized in a way that makes them easy to miss.
However, when it comes to multitasking, Windows RT does it better than any other tablet OS - Android 4.1: Jelly Bean or iOS 6 included. Swiping from the left allows you to toggle through currently active apps. It's sort of like the Windows RT version of alt-tabbing, and it's one of the slickest, coolest-looking aspects of the new interface.
This is Windows doing its best Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" impression. Not only is it convenient and intuitive, it's actually fun to use. It might even make anyone watching over your shoulder gasp a little. It made us feel like a magician pulling tricks out of our sleeve.
By swiping from the left and then dragging back a little, you open up the switching pane. This is a thumbnail list of your currently active applications, sort of like the recent apps list in iOS 6. This lets you manage more than three or so apps quite handily.
Finally, in its last bit of multitasking magic, Windows RT is capable of running two apps at once in a splitscreen fashion. By swiping from the left or dragging an app out of the switching pane, you can trigger a sort of picture-in-picture that allows you to watch a video while reading your email, manage your music playlist while looking at photos, or chat while browsing the web.
Not every app will run this way, most games won't. But for certain specialized situations, it's absolute perfection. If you needed to reference a picture while talking to a friends, or listen to an interview while transcribing in Word, it's an ideal set up.
Of course, doubling up on intensive programs, like a movie and a graphics-heavy web page, will cause performance issues and stuttering.
The "Metro"-style interface might be attractive, but it can be rather foreign and intimidating when you first start using a Windows 8 or RT device. Thankfully, your old friend the desktop is just a touch away.
Pressing the Desktop icon on the Start Screen takes you to the familiar windows start screen. However, Windows RT doesn't allow third-party programs to be installed here. All that can be readily accessed is Internet Explorer and the Windows RT suite of Office 2013 products.
In many ways, it feels cut off from the new Windows experience. For example, it allows you to have two different instances of Internet Explorer running at the same time. You can open one in "Metro" and one on the Desktop. It feels a tad schizophrenic, we'd have prefered a more seamless integration of the two.
There's also a handful of things that can only be done via the Desktop - dragging files off of a flash drive and onto the system drive, for instance. While many Start screen apps can access files via USB, there's no way to save them short of dragging and dropping to the Desktop.
Start screen apps will be able to access files you've moved this way, but there's no way to save them without a trip to the desktop. This seems like an oversight.
While we're on the subject, a touch-based interface is not ideal for drag and drop, so the desktop is one place you'll definitely use a mouse or touchpad. As is, Windows RT had a hard time distinguishing between a long press for highlighting and the touch equivalent of a right-click.
Bottom line, the new interface is a success, but requires users to meet it halfway and learn its quirks. The fact that RT still has a desktop is a bit mystifying. It's highly limited but sadly still essential. It's simply not suited for a touch interface, which you'll realize the second you open up Control Panel, or anything with a bunch of little icons and tabs. Thank goodness the Microsoft Surface type cover has a touchpad.
The world of apps on Windows RT is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, you get a suite of the most useful Office 2013 products with your purchase price. Then you've got the access to the Windows Store's limited selection apps. While entertainment stalwarts like Netflix and Hulu Plus have arrived, social networking giants like Twitter and Facebook have yet to launch official apps. There are some capable third-party workarounds, though.
- Read more: 25 best Windows 8 apps available today
The list is growing though, Evernote, eBay, StumbleUpon, Pandora, Skitch, Box.net, and Slacker Radio have all since joined the ranks.
There's also a surprisingly limited selection of games, surprising because this is Microsoft, the company that's currently ruling the living room with the Xbox 360. The games available for Windows RT are all overly familiar cellphone titles like Angry Birds, Jetpack Joyride and Cut the Rope. At least Windows RT supports Smartglass, so your tablet can assist as you play some Halo 4 or Madden 2013.
If Windows RT has one bundled advantage over Windows 8, it's the inclusion of Office 2013 products. Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote are all included on RT devices. These applications start in preview mode, but a quick online sync will unlock the full versions.
Despite looking totally "Metro"-fied, these apps all run from the Desktop. That means that selecting their Live Tiles will dump you into the old-school Windows view. It makes for a jarring bit of time travel.
The programs themselves have been nicely reworked for use with a touch interface. But for resizing and minimizing the windows, you'll want to bust out a cursor, either through mouse or touchpad.
The apps look great though, especially Powerpoint. While your audience may still nod off like narcoleptics at a midnight meeting, you'll enjoy the snazzy looking interface as you put your presentation together.
Best of all, it's easy to save files to the 7GB of Skydrive space included with your purchase. The option is right there when you access "Save as." This way, you'll have no trouble getting to your files on another PC or Windows Phone 8 device.
The multitasking capabilities of Windows RT helps products like Windows Surface RT make good on the promise of productivity. Additionally, the included suite of Office 2013 programs add to their value. Productivity is all well and good, but what about fun distractions?
There's a considerable lack of games and social networking apps for Windows RT. Unless you want to play Angry Birds again, or learn a third-party Twitter program you'll probably ditch once the real thing comes out, Windows RT leaves a lot to be desired. At least you won't be tempted to fritter away cash on impulse app purchases.
Compatibility and Performance
Sure Windows RT looks great and it can be an honest-to-goodness good time just using it, but how does it run? And what classic Windows programs can it use? The answers are just pretty well and none at all, respectively.
When Windows 8 and the loss of the Start menu was first announced, Microsoft quelled the worries and potential nerd rage with the Desktop, and the promise of supporting "legacy" software. That meant that favorite PC programs like VLC Media Player and Adobe Photoshop CS6.
However, it was only Windows 8 that made that promise. Windows RT doesn't allow third-party installations to the desktop, and therefore doesn't support legacy software.
The only programs you'll use from the Desktop are Microsoft Office 2013 applications and Internet Explorer. As we mentioned, the Desktop on Windows RT is a no third-party zone, so anything that isn't Microsoft-made will not grace this space.
To judge the performance of Windows RT, we're basing our impressions off a Microsoft Surface running RT. It's pretty snappy to boot, and the lock screen comes on in a little less than 30 seconds.
The place where it gets slightly sluggish is opening an app for the first time. For example, Netflix takes upward of 20 seconds to get going.
Once an app or two is open though, Windows RT can handily go between them. Again, this makes multitasking one of its best features. The Surface was able to resume games and streaming movies right where we left off, without having to reload them.
Going split screen with videos and email or a webpage was no sweat. A game and a movie, or a particularly graphics-heavy website, would result in some chugging.
Overall, Windows RT performs very well, especially considering it's built to work with smartphone-level processors. Add that to the impressive battery life that these devices often get - we got an astounding seven-and-half hours of movie watching in our Microsoft Surface review - and there's plenty of reasons to be impressed.
One of the best parts of any tablet is having a high-resolution screen and hard drive full of movies and music to carry around with you. Windows RT is capable for supporting entertainment on the go. While your purchases will be locked into the Windows Store ecosystem, the drag and drop desktop makes it easy to import files you already own, and Microsoft has formed a comprehensive, if expensive, media ecosystem using the Xbox name as an umbrella. Thanks to this synergy, anything you purchase on a Windows RT (or Windows 8) device will be living room ready on your Xbox 360.
Purchasing and renting television and movies is done through the Video app found on the Start screen. Once inside, you'll see that its been branded with the name Xbox Video. The video quality gets as high as 1080p for films, with the choice of opting for SD to save a few bucks. Users are also given the option to stream or download their purchases. Download speeds and stream buffer rates are over WiFi are competitive with services like iTunes, as is the selection.
However, the prices are not. Take, for example, the newly released "Men in Black 3." An HD download or stream will cost you $19.99, while it will cost you $17.99 on iTunes or $14.99 on Amazon. Further examples include "The Amazing Spiderman," an HD copy will run you $19.99 on Xbox Video, $17.99 on iTunes and $12.99 on Amazon.
TV prices are on par though, with episodes of "The Walking Dead" season 3 in HD going for $2.99 a pop, same as Amazon and iTunes. Xbox Video also offer a season pass for a competitive $42.03.
Xbox Music is an interesting mix of storefront and streaming music service. Albums can be streamed, with ads, internet radio style, or purchased for your library. There's also the option to subscribe to a premium, ad-free version for US$9.99, AU$11.99 and UK£8.99. Those prices suggest Microsoft wants to take Spotify head-on, and with 30 million tracks, they might be able to.
We think the streaming service is an excellent option for someone with more than one Microsoft device. It lets you enjoy a ton of tracks without committing to the ecosystem in the way that album purchases will force you to. If you plan to jam out on the go with a Windows Phone 8, or you have an Xbox 360, Windows 8 or Windows RT device hooked into decent speakers, it's more than worth the money.
As far as album purchases go, Xbox Music is priced to compete for new music, but older albums are a bit steep. For example, Green Day's latest album "¡Dos!" is priced to move at $9.99, the same you'd pay on iTunes. Amazon beats Microsoft and Apple though, selling a download for $5.00.
However, the band's 1994 album "Dookie,"goes for $9.99. iTunes only wants $7.99 but Amazon wins again at $6.99.
Windows RT is rather limited when it comes to file formats. For videos, it only supports WMV and MK4 files. MKV and AVI files are sadly out of the question. RT plays nicer with audio files. it supports M4A, MP3, MPEG, WMA, AAC and a few more.
To summarize, Microsoft has assembled a storefront with a competitive selection but rather high prices. If you're someone who's already steeped in the ecosystem thanks to Xbox 360, you'll love having access to what you've already purchased. If not, being able to be a single fee for streaming music is a good deal.
Otherwise, the Windows Store is a bit of a walled garden, and a pricey one at that. Other than bringing in MP3s via thumb drive, there's no good way of importing media from other sources.
Windows RT supports one and only one browser, Internet Explorer. It's accessible from the start screen in the "Metro" version of the tabbed interface we've all grown to love. It's been optimized for touchscreens, using touch-friendly large icons, pinches to zoom and swipes from the top or bottom to reveal the address bar and your current tabs.
Touching the start bar brings up a list of your favorite and most frequently visited sites.
Keeping all these extraneous bits hidden maximizes screen real estate and makes for a very attractive browser.
As is the norm with tablets, the browser can run in portrait mode. Just turn the Windows RT device over in your hand, and the browser rearranges itself rather neatly. It does it at a moderate speed, not too impressive but not sluggish either. It does do an admirable job of formatting everything for maximum legibility, though.
While zooming in and out like you would on an iOS 6 or Android browser helps for clicking, a handful of websites have adopted a tiled, Windows 8-style layout. Most notably there's MSN.com, which now sports a "designed for Windows 8" moniker. The big icons and scrollable graphics are perfect for a touch interface.
However, not every site cooperates so well with Windows RT and 8. Facebook in particular causes trouble, most especially the feed. Attempting to zoom and Like a comment can make for some very messy resizing.
Facebook chatting is basically impossible with the on-screen keyboard, since it tends to pop up and cover the chat windows. Luckily, RT's Messaging applications can be linked with your Facebook account and does a great job of filling the gap.
Since you can see which of your Facebook friends is online, it makes a fine hold over until Zuckerberg and friends develop an official app for Windows RT.
As we mentioned earlier, Internet Explorer on Windows RT is something of a two-headed beast, because there's also a traditional Windows 7-style version that launches from the desktop.
It has the same pinch and zoom controls, but other than that, you'll definitely want a mouse. It has the traditional windows buttons for closing and minimizing, but their small sizes make them a pain to hit with a finger.
Lastly, there's minimal flash support on Windows RT. Only a handful of sites "approved" by Microsoft are allowed to run flash on the company's mobile OS. This is more than iOS 6 and Android 4.1: Jelly Bean, which don't support Flash at all, but the list of approved sites is so short, you can basically consider Flash nonexistent on mobile.
At the end of the day, the Windows RT browsing experience is adequate in most places, with one or two strokes of genius. The best bits have to do with the design and interface. Keeping the address bar and favorites a swipe away makes for a beautiful and convenient browser. However, there are still some kinks to be ironed out, bumps in the road you'll notice when pages fail to load and require a second attempt.
It's a pity that Facebook, undoubtedly one of the most popular sites in the world, is so poorly optimized. This wouldn't even be an issue if there was an official Facebook app, but the Messaging center just can't replicate the collective stream of consciousness that is the Facebook Feed.
All in all, it feels like a smartphone browser that benefits from running on a big, attractive touchscreen.
While its destined to forever live in its big brother's shadow, it's not without a few advantages of its own.
As far as looks and general interface go, Windows RT includes the best of Windows 8. The "Metro" Start start screen looks great and does wonders with a touchscreen. Live Tiles are an awesome cross-breed of icons and widgets, and the multitasking and split screen features make it the first legitimately fun OS in a long time.
It's built to support the tremendous battery life mobile devices need to be considered top-tier. With the Microsoft Surface running Windows RT clocking in at seven-an- a-half hours before needing a charge, there's reason to be impressed.
The inclusion of Office 2013 products makes it something of a value purchase, and fulfills the promise of a tablet OS built for productivity. Not only do the programs look great, but also Skydrive makes Windows more seamless than its ever been.
Microsoft, why does Windows RT have a desktop? It's clumsy, and formatted poorly for small screens and touch interfaces alike. And why make essential applications like Control Panel and all the Office programs run exclusively from it? If legacy programs are not supported then don't tease us with the site of the familiar and beloved desktop.
And why be so picky about which sites can run Flash? You could have gotten away with just banning it outright - iOS 6 and Android do the same. Now there's some sort of confusing mobile web elitism in the air, and it's just going to befuddle the casual users Windows RT seems destined to appeal to.
Then there's the app store. Yes, we know it was just launched, but no Facebook or Twitter apps? The Messaging center is not good enough to replace the two most popular social networks on the planet. That's a glaring absence. Whoever is dragging their feet on that one needs a serious hot foot.
Finally, some of the movie prices are just ridiculous. Microsoft, you could get away with that three years ago on the Xbox 360 when PlayStation 3 and the Wii were late to the media center game, but now that Amazon is ruling the roost with iTunes running a close second, you need to step up your game to compete.
Windows RT might be kneecapped, but it's also affordable. Anyone who's considering an RT device like the Microsoft Surface or Asus Vivo Tab RT should think long and hard about whether their money would be better spent on an full-blown Windows 8 device, like the excellent Asus VivoBook S200 or the capable Lenovo Ideapad Yoga.
That doesn't mean it should be avoided though. The new Live Tile interface is awesome for tablets, and genuinely fun to use. Just makes sure you know what you're getting into, which is more of tablet than a full blown PC, no matter what that fancy fold-out keyboard tells you.