Windows RT: FAQ

Coming off of our previous coverage, you may have heard about Windows 8 and Windows RT as being different. We run through the differences and clarify a few things.

The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11.
(Credit: CNET)

While Microsoft has made a point of cutting down on the number of Windows 8 versions available when compared to previous Windows releases, the company is also making a feature-limited Windows 8 version to run on ARM processors, called Windows RT. Windows RT is more like Microsoft's attempt to do a Windows version of Apple's locked-down iOS than anything else.

What does "RT" stand for?

As with Windows NT, Microsoft has yet to clarify what "RT" actually means. Why Microsoft decided to name the ARM-powered version of Windows so ridiculously similar to the abbreviation for Windows Runtime, WinRT, is beyond the abilities of mere mortals to decipher.

Wait, what? Windows RT and WinRT aren't the same thing?

The short answer is, "nope".

The long answer is, well, longer. Windows Runtime, also referred to as WinRT, runs on both standard Windows 8 and Windows RT. Runtime is the technical term for the engine that powers the new Metro apps. It's not the first Windows Runtime. "Runtime" refers to the collection of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow developers to write software that can interact with the hardware and each other.

Windows RT is simply a name that Microsoft has given to Windows 8 running on ARM hardware. You wouldn't be entirely off base to think of it as "Windows Lite", given its restrictions and differences from standard Windows 8, which runs both Metro and Desktop mode.

What is Metro?

For one thing, Microsoft doesn't want you to call the new interface Metro any more, but it may be too late for that. Naming aside, Metro is the new user interface for Windows 8. Instead of icons, there are "tiles" that can surface information from the app in real-time, and it's powered by WinRT.

So, what is WinRT?

Basically, WinRT is the underpinnings of the Metro side of Windows 8. But it does more than implement the Metro interface; it also simplifies much of the programming for Windows developers. Coding for Metro is significantly easier than writing a program for Windows 7 (or earlier systems). This is important for Microsoft, because it can now point to Windows 8 as an attractive place for developers to ply their trade.

What's the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT?

There are several notable differences and they could cause Windows RT to fail, while Windows 8 succeeds. Microsoft has produced a chart of the differences between Windows 8 and Window RT, but here are the highlights:

  • Windows RT will work only on ARM-powered devices

  • Windows RT will have a Desktop mode, but it will be restricted to pre-installed, Microsoft-produced software. This will include touch-optimised versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote as the new Microsoft Office

  • Windows RT will come with device encryption

  • Neither old nor new x86/x64 programs will work on Windows RT.

Microsoft Corp CEO Steve Ballmer introduces the all-new Surface tablet during the company's mystery event in Los Angeles, California.
(Credit: Josh Lowensohn/CNET )

What devices will run Windows RT?

Manufacturers are being extremely cautious about embracing Windows RT. Of all the changes in Windows 8, the biggest unknown is predicting how people will react to its "Windows 8 Lite" approach.

Here's CNET's complete list of Windows 8 computers and tablets (but we've pulled out the Windows RT devices):

  • Microsoft Surface RT: Microsoft is making a big splash with its first ever in-house designed computer hardware. There will be two versions of the Surface available; one running Windows RT and the other running standard Windows 8. You can buy the Windows RT version, called Surface RT, when the operating system and hardware from Microsoft's manufacturing partners are made available to the general public on 26 October

  • Dell XPS 10 Tablet hybrid: a smaller form factor of the XPS 12, which will also be running the full-fledged Windows 8. The unique design is resurrected and renamed from the Dell Duo line

  • Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11: like the XPS 10, the IdeaPad Yoga comes in two sizes. The smaller one will run Windows RT, while the larger gets the full-fledged Windows 8. Also like the XPS 10, the Yoga brand features the unique design where the screen can bend back on itself. No word from Lenovo on whether it will help you with your Sun Salutation

  • Samsung Ativ Tab: Samsung's no stranger to tablets, thanks to Android. Ativ Tab is the most Android-looking of the Windows RT hardware that's been announced so far.

What kind of apps can Windows RT run?

The focus of Metro apps will be on internet connectivity, cloud synchronisation and responsiveness. If it works in Windows 8 Metro, but does not open in Desktop mode, it will work on Windows RT.

Microsoft may be getting into this market, but Dell isn't deterred. It announced its XPS 10 Windows RT tablet at the IFA consumer-electronics show in Berlin. It also has a detachable keyboard.
(Credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET )

Will I be able to update an old ARM-powered device to Windows RT?

No. At this point, Windows RT will be only available pre-installed. This is not expected to change, either.

What's the benefit of ARM?

ARM processors power virtually all iOS, Android and other mobile devices on the market. ARM has gained so much traction in large part because of its better battery management. Malware designed to run on current Windows computers generally won't work on ARM's chips. ARM could be a huge boon to Windows, if only Microsoft can convince people that Windows RT is worthwhile.

Are there any other drawbacks to Windows RT?

There are a couple that stand out, so far, that we haven't mentioned yet.

There are certain core APIs that Microsoft is restricting access to in Windows RT, but are available in full Windows 8. This has caused much consternation among browser vendors, and has raised fears that Microsoft is attempting to cut off browser innovation by locking down Windows RT in the same way that Apple has locked down iOS.

The OEM license for Windows RT is expected to be in the US$80 range, so it's likely that Windows RT devices will be notably more expensive than their Android-powered counterparts.

While we've seen some hardware specs for standard Windows 8 devices, including tablets, we haven't seen any confirmed specs for a single Windows RT tablet. That doesn't bode well for manufacturer confidence.

There doesn't seem to be a way to visually distinguish a Windows RT tablet from a Windows 8 tablet, which could lead to buyer confusion — to put it mildly.

Windows RT remains the biggest gamble that Microsoft is taking with Windows 8, as it is cutting itself off from legacy Windows. Sure, there is a free version of Office included, and this may draw some people in, on its own. However, there's scant evidence from consumers or manufacturers that they're interested in this version of Windows 8, but it could also position Microsoft for future growth in a way that limiting itself to Intel chips can't.


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