In Depth: What Windows RT Can't Do

You probably know that Windows 8 comes in two different versions -- Basic x86 Windows (this is what you use now) and Windows RT. They have similar names. They look the same. But there are serious differences between the two -- ones you should know about before you plunk down your cold hard cash on a Microsoft tablet.

Surface -- and other Windows tablets that follow it -- will come in both Windows RT and full Windows varietals. Which is great! More choice is always better. The problem you're going to run into, though, is that the gap between RT and x86 is as wide as that between iOS and OS X -- except the two Windows offerings look exactly the same at first blush.

There are a ton of benefits to using RT, like better battery life, lighter weight devices, cheaper price points. But there are limitations, too. Here are a few of the big ones.

Won't Run A Lot Of Your Programs

The most basic way that Windows RT hamstrings you is also the most comprehensive: You cannot run many of the same programs that you do on your regular desktop PC. And the apps you can use have to be updated to run in Metro/Modern/whatever on RT.

For a lot of basic tasks, that's not an issue. Especially not for students, since RT comes with a free, full version of Office 2013. But the absence of legacy software will be a problem for anyone else who's bought into the Windows ecosystem over the decades and expects their programs to work across their devices. They won't. The full x86 Windows tablets -- like the Surface launching three months from now -- can run basically any Windows program you've bought in the last several years.

Bottom line: If you're someone who needs specific programs for work -- even something basic like Photoshop -- you're going to have to hold off on an RT machine.

Limited App Selection

This one should be just a temporary snag, but the app selection for Windows RT isn't as robust as you're used to. In addition to not running legacy x86 apps, the OS can also only install apps through the Windows Store. So, all of those certification issues that you've heard from the gaming side of things? While they won't matter all that much on regular Windows 8 (which can grab programs from anywhere), they could severely limit the apps that you'll see on the RT platform for a while.

Right now, there are 5562 total apps in the Windows Store worldwide and 94 per cent of them are Windows RT. compatible. That's a decent number, and includes support from heavy hitters like Netflix, Evernote, and Amazon. The top-notch first party services from Microsoft help too. But Android 3.0 Honeycomb got rightly skewered for having such a lackluster offering of available tablet apps, and RT's numbers are in the same ballpark. Among the missing notables: Twitter, Facebook, and Spotify. Again, x86 Windows tablets won't have this problem; they can run anything that works on your desktop today.

Thankfully, RT does come with that full Office 13 suite. Office RT will include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, and syncs your documents over SkyDrive.

Less Open

A lot's been made about the Windows Store predominance moving Microsoft away from Windows being an open platform. Full Windows 8 is going to remain more or less the same -- you can still download an app from anywhere and install it, without going through any official Microsoft channels. But buying and installing stuff on RT devices is pretty much like doing so on an iOS device: It only works through Microsoft's Windows Store. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's different. And it's going to rub a few people the wrong way.

There's a chance you'll be able to sideload apps through Windows RT architecture -- you can on Windows Phone 8 -- but it will likely be more trouble than it's worth.

Windows Media Player/Center

If you use Windows Media centre as your home DVR, you're also going to need an x86 machine to control it, since RT doesn't work with WMC. It also doesn't come with Windows Media Player, but that's not a big deal since the onboard media players will handle most of that load.


Business users -- of which Microsoft has more than a few -- should be particularly wary of RT. Most importantly: You cannot use Windows RT with a Windows Active Directory domain. So if you need AD to be active for work, you've got to go x86.

You also won't get Outlook with your RT Office 2013, so you'll have to use Mail and Calendar to sync up with Exchange. That's not a huge compromise, but with how rigid some offices are about keeping everything standard, it could be a deal breaker. And the apps you do get with Office 2013 will have to be activated for use in a business setting.

Should You Wait?

For most casual consumers, the folks who want to use their Windows tablet like they would an iPad, Surface should be plenty fine -- especially once Microsoft gets that app store populated. But Microsoft hasn't done a particularly good job explaining the difference between RT and x86, even to its own employees. And the differences that might not matter to one person might be a deal-breaker for others.



    I was going to wait until the Surface Pro anyway, though given it's probable price, I think I might just stick with my Nexus 7.

      People keep saying this and I really don't understand why. Do you really expect the Surface Pro to cost the same as an iPad? It's a full computer in a tablet! It should cost about the same as an Ultrabook, and less than a touch ultrabook, because really you're getting an ultrabook and tablet all in one.

        "because really you're getting an ultrabook and tablet all in one."

        This is exactly why people keep saying that. We aren't expecting iPad pricing on the Pro in the slightest, we're just waiting on what is essentially a really capable multi function mobile PC.

        If that machine comes with a fully fledged thunderbolt connection then imagine a scenario in which you could potentially dock the machine at home to something equivalent to a ViDock and get a fairly capable mid range gaming/productivity machine which you can then simply un-plug and take with you anywhere.

    So the difference is that windows RT is like say an iPad compared to normal windows which is like say a macbook pro......who didn't know that?

      Also the bias in these articles is getting ridiculous. If this was an apple product there would be no comparison to iOS and OS X.

        "If this was an apple product there would be no comparison to iOS and OS X"

        That would be because you can't compare an apple product to iOS or OS X, because they actually RUN these operating systems. How would one undertake this comprison?

        I do however get your point and agree - perhaps read your comment before pressing submit.

        But apple don't call iOS "OSX RT" in which case a comparison may be in order for people that aren't tech savvy to know that they're getting a full desktop operation system. In the case of Windows RT consumers might be under the impression they are getting a full fledged version of Windows albeit a "home" edition.

        Pretty sure the last two OS X releases were both compared to the current iOS releases when reviewed given both versions of OS X introduced a fair amount of crossover with iOS.

        At the same time, MS has clearly tried to make the two OS function similarly so comparisons are only fair. Apple has to an extent, but nowhere near to the same degree.

    An interesting question that I just thought of while reading this - given that Windows RT includes the desktop, will that make it relatively easy for any vendor to port their x86 software to ARM? e.g. Instead of just doing Photoshop Touch, could Adobe offer Photoshop CS6 forRT and run it on the desktop? It is the only thing that makes sense of keeping the desktop in RT, isn't it?

      Microsoft have already said that the desktop is only for file manager and that developers will not have access to desktop on RT except Microsoft. But that could change.

      @MotorMouth - The idea would be that a Windows 8 native app should run. If Adobe releases a "metro" win 8 version, that should run fine. The RT is really about cutting the umbilical cord to the previous generations of windows. This is something they need to do if they want the App market to move forward.

    When I first saw this headline I thought "great, another overbiased Giz article that I should have not wasted my time reading". thanks for proving me wrong - this article covers both sides and fundamentally sticks to the facts which is great. I would like to see other writers follow a similar style to Kyle's.

    Interesting! Turns out that most of the issues identified here are actually advantages to me. I do not want games on my machine and I do all my work with Office, mostly Word and Excel. And I keep my documents on my Skydrive. I do a lot of writing so improved battery life will be very important to me.

      Agreed. I actually think Microsoft should have eliminated the desktop completely in RT and just added a file manager into the new UI. Haven't used RT but Microsoft are claiming that the new UI is mouse friendly so I don't see the need for the desktop if it can't be use for more than a file manager.

        There's actually a really nice metro file manager in the windows 8 store for (i think) $1.50. So the only thing desktop is needed for now is microsofts own office. They need to pour resources into metrofying it soon.

      It's worth noting that the version of office for RT is slightly different from the full one. Not being critical of it - it's more useful using a touch interface etc. however, have a play with it before you get the RT just so you know you'll be happy with that version of office.

    "There’s nothing inherently wrong with" closed systems? I put it to you there's nothing RIGHT about a middleman putting themselves between software creators and willing customers and demanding a cut.

      I don't think anyone could argure that it hasn't worked with Apple.

      I wouldn't say there is nothing wrong with it....but likewise I wouldn't say there is nothing right. There are some advantages but it also comes with some disadvantages. Depending who you are will determine how much the pros or cons weigh up for you.

    I think RT addresses a criticism of Windows from OSX/ iOS users, which is that they want a system that they don't want to have to manage - they just want to have the thing work. An ex-colleague (who was a farily senior IT service manager) had said they used to love tinkering, but doing it for a living meant they didn't want the same hassle at home any more. An iPad and a (seriously speced out) Mac were all they wanted when they were on their own time. Now, it looks like they can achieve the same thing with RT.

    Personally, I'm going for a Surface running pro (or maybe a Dell XPS 12 Duo), because the only thing tying me to iOS is iTunes, which I've invested in over about 7 years, I guess. Give me a Windows table with iTunes, and I'm happy.

    "Among the missing notables: Twitter, Facebook, and Spotify. Again, x86 Windows tablets won’t have this problem; they can run anything that works on your desktop today"

    There aren't desktop apps for these either. Both RT and desktop have to access these through the browser. And spotify? I'll take Xbox music over that or any other music service.

      Edit - Oops, didn't mean to reply to you.
      "there are 5562 total apps in the Windows Store worldwide"
      "But Android 3.0 Honeycomb got rightly skewered for having such a lackluster offering of available tablet apps, and RT’s numbers are in the same ballpark"
      I fail to see how 5562 is in the same ballpark as 100 :\
      It's funny though because the amount of apps RT has just before it's coming out is just over four times the amount the iPad had just before it came out. Mind you, the iPad could run iPhone apps too.

      Last edited 20/10/12 5:58 pm

    I really believe that Microsoft has the correct approach here. The issue with Apple's iPad is that you cannot run a full desktop version of OS X - but people still love it for the Apps it provides. If Microsoft can expand on their store and provide a good low-end market & lite product it will be a great success. Also, by going ahead and adding a Windows 8 model, they're appealing to Business users and people that want the full desktop experience.

    Also, in regards to Active Directory - it's not necessary. Unless you're in a shared business environment (where you would buy the Windows 8 model anyway) the device would be for personal use. A single user/password login is all that's necessary for this device when running Windows RT.

    so could we say windows RT is like a big version of windows phone 8 that has office on it?

    I think you will find most of the major MS partners in Retail here in AUS will be pretty worded up on the differences between WinRT and Win8 for new devices. I wrote an editorial on this, and why I formed this view:

    Should be interesting to see how early retail sales go. I have my SurfaceRT pre-ordered :D


    Was nice to read this. When I saw other articles mentioning Windows RT I was wondering if it was a more limited copy, this answered that. Certainly won't be buying up a win 8 tablet unless it has the full Win 8 on it so I can run it as both a full lappy (and then I'll be making sure it's powerful enough to run some AutoCAD) and a tablet.

    Will there be a significant branding difference between the two? If I walk into JB HiFi and walk along an aisle of W8 tablets on display, will the RT models and Pro models be easily distinguishable (beside looking at the specs label and price tag)? It's easy telling apart W7 Home Premium and Professional - it's written right there on the lock screen. Will this be similar?

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