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HTG Explains: What Is Windows RT and What Does It Mean To Me?

windows pc and windows phone

Windows RT is a special edition of Windows 8. It runs on ARM and you’ll find it alongside Intel x86 machines in stores, but you’ll be surprised just how much Windows RT differs from the Windows you know.

Windows RT is so different  that Microsoft has told Mozilla Windows RT “isn’t Windows anymore.” If you’re looking to buy a Windows system in stores, you should know the difference between Windows RT and the other editions of Windows 8.

Image Credit: Kiwi Flickr

ARM vs. x86

Windows RT was known in development as Windows on ARM, or WOA. It’s essentially a port of Windows from Intel x86 processors to ARM processors. x86 processors are what you’ll find in standard laptops and desktops today, while the vast majority of smartphones and tablets use ARM processors.

Because it’s a port of Windows to a different architecture, it doesn’t support legacy software – that is, all software written for Windows already. It’s known as Windows RT because it only supports applications written for Windows Runtime or WinRT (yes, “WinRT” refers to the runtime that works on both architectures, while “Windows RT” refers to the operating system that only works on ARM). You probably know Windows Runtime applications as “Metro apps.”

windows 8 laptop

Image Credit: Robert Scoble on Flickr

It Has A Desktop, But…

Windows RT does have a desktop, just like other editions of Windows 8. You can launch the desktop and use Microsoft desktop applications like the Control Panel, Windows Explorer, Internet Explorer, and even Microsoft Office – in fact, each Windows RT system comes with touch-optimized versions of Microsoft Office apps on the desktop. Windows Media Player isn’t included, though.

However, you can’t run non-Microsoft applications on a Windows RT desktop. You might assume that this is because desktop applications just haven’t been compiled for the ARM architecture yet and developers just need to update them. This would be true, but Microsoft won’t allow third-party applications on the Windows RT desktop. In other words: The Windows RT desktop is locked-down and only for Microsoft applications. You can’t install non-Microsoft desktop applications.

windows 8 microsoft desktop applications

Third-Party Application Restrictions

All third-party applications on Windows RT must be Metro applications, and Metro applications must go through the Windows Store and be approved by Microsoft. This means that a Windows RT device can only run Microsoft-approved applications, just like an iPad can only run Apple-approved applications.

This has implications for browser choice, too. On a Windows RT device, the Metro version of Internet Explorer has exclusive access to system APIs, which means Mozilla, Google, and others can’t develop their own browsers for Windows RT – both Mozilla and Google have raised concerns about this. If you use a Windows RT device, you’ll be using Internet Explorer – just like if you use an iPad, you’ll be using Safari. All third-party browsers for the iPad are shells around Safari, just like all third-party browsers for Windows RT will be shells around Internet Explorer.

windows-rt-ie-vs-firefox

Image Credit: Asa Dotzler on Flickr

Windows RT Is For “Devices”

Windows RT is clearly inspired by the iPad and it’s no coincidence that its restrictions mirror Apple’s. Microsoft envisions Windows RT computers as “devices,” not traditional PCs. You won’t be able to buy a boxed copy of Windows RT in stores – it’s only available pre-installed on ARM systems. Initially, these ARM systems will be a handful of Windows tablets, but there’s nothing stopping Windows RT from eventually running on laptop and even desktop computers with ARM chipsets.

Windows RT devices will be locked down in other ways, too. Microsoft mandates that Secure Boot on Windows RT devices isn’t user-configurable, so you won’t be able to remove Windows RT and install Linux or another operating system.

windows 8 computers

Image Credit: Kiwi Flickr

Missing Enterprise Features

Windows RT also lacks many enterprise features that have made Windows so successful. Windows RT devices can’t join an Active Directory or domain and don’t support group policy, so they can’t be easily managed by existing Windows infrastructure.

Windows RT also lacks a variety of other features, including Storage Spaces, BitLocker, remote-desktop hosting, and encrypted file systems. For a full list of limitations, check out Microsoft’s post announcing the Windows 8 editions.

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Not All Windows Tablets Run Windows RT

Many Windows tablets – in fact, most of the tablets you’ll see in stores when Windows 8 debuts – won’t run Windows RT. They’ll be using a standard x86 Intel processor with one of the standard versions of Windows 8. That means they’ll support third-party desktop software and all standard Windows features.

If you’re interested in a Windows 8 tablet because of support for legacy desktop software, be sure to get an x86 tablet, not an ARM one. If you’re looking for enterprise features, you’ll probably want to stay away from Windows RT, too.


Current rumors indicate that each copy of Windows RT will likely cost manufacturers around $85, making Windows RT more expensive than other Windows 8 versions – and likely making Windows RT tablets more expensive than iPads. Windows RT tablets could even be more expensive than more full-featured Windows 8 x86 tablets.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 06/15/12

Comments (40)

  1. Watson

    Man, thanx for the advice, It’s good to know that. If I buy one I want with support for legacy Windows applications,without it would be kind a boring.

  2. Sherlock

    Thank you for that thorough explanation!
    My opinion is that Windows 8 makes big mistakes.

  3. Citrus Rain

    More expensive Windows tablet = less featured Windows tablet.

    ……Okay… That’s really REALLY backwards. Even for Microsoft.

  4. dragonbite

    This clears up a LOT! Thanks!

  5. yatta

    SO what’s the point of Windows RT then? Like I’m not gonna go and buy the RT Device.

    Of course I’ll buy the intel based ones… if I will of course

  6. KomanderKain

    “They’ll be using a standard x86 Intel processor with one of the standard versions of Windows 8″

    or AMD APU, which compared to an Atom processor should provide a much less “choppy” experience with the Metro UI.

  7. williamknight57

    Windows 8 is complicate enough, both sound like major mistakes

  8. crow

    Looks like I will stay with win7 and wait for a (real) improved windows operating system, maybe win9, for the same reason I skipped Vista.

  9. bigghands

    FAIL

  10. bigghands

    That Google Chromebook is sounding more interesting by the minute !

  11. Gary Boucher

    More reasons I hate Microsoft.
    I tell ya, someday, Apple will run circles around MS.

  12. TsarNikky

    I’ll be sticking with Windows-7 for my two computers–laptop and desktop. This will also extend to my office’s computers. Maybe, Windows-9 will have some compelling features for me to upgrade. I have more important things on which to spend money on than ditching perfectly good hardware for smartphones or tablets just to get ARM functionality.

  13. Keth

    So..its more expensive..and less functional…yup makes sense ಠ_ಠ

  14. Anonymous

    Can anyone say Zune 3?

    Who’s stupid enough to pay money to a dictatorship that won’t allow it’s subjects to modify their own stuff. Oh wait. That’s right. Apple consumers. (If you doubt it, then you might ask yourself why you have to “jail break” your own devices or “crack” them somehow?)

    This is just more Apple (stuff) from more money grubbing suits pretending to be some sort of technological alternative. I think most of us “geeks” will agree that Windows 8 is about the biggest mistake Microsoft can make. But it’s a mistake that will likely succeed beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.

    Nothing is more tempting than the forbidden fruit. And whenever you start talking about locking devices down or making something exclusive it attracts the all of the stupid little hipsters and yuppies like flies. They often just want to rub it in your face that they have the cash – not the brains or national loyalty – the cash! Microsoft is only taking a lead from Apple. So get ready to bend over…

  15. Bob

    For the life of me I can’t imagine ANYONE purposely going out and spending who knows how much to buy a stupid “ARM or RT imprisoned” computer!

    These “devices” and their restrictive OS’s Microsoft are trying to impose on their loyal user base are the biggest scam the company has come up with – and by going that route, Microsoft has finally sunk to the level of emulating the insulting proprietary marketing debacle that keeps Apple forever relegated to 2nd place in the market!

    I have used Macs in the past but could not endure their GUI and logistic wackiness, so I could have gone with Mac but because of their expensiveness and their proprietary noose dangling around every single purchases, doing so would have left a bad taste in my mouth. Now Microsoft is going down that very same marketing abyss!

    I don’t even like the idea that Microsoft makes your computer” phone home” and divulges the specifics of what’s on your personal computer for tracking on their anti-pirating database or it disables most of the OS’s functionality, and this s just so they will allow you to do them the favor of using their product!

    Having said that, sooner or later, I MAY move to Windows 8, but I am going to stay with Win 7 until all the unwarranted crap settles to the bottom and see if there is really any actual benefit over Win 7 before I do!

  16. James

    I won’t buy Apple devices because they need jailbreaking to be able to do what *I* want to do with my purchase, rather than what the maker thinks I *should* do. So Windows RT is a big no-no. What are MS thinking of… I really think they are losing it. It seems that Windows 7 will be the ‘new’ XP, and desined to be around a long time. In attempting to handle both touch-screen and traditional systems with Windows 8, it fails to deliver on both. After struggling with the release candidate, I would never think of running it on a new computer. Time to buy up a few 7 licenses while we still can!

  17. Doh

    Sounds like a challenge! Prolly take a month or so for someone to exploit and root it. Have we learned nothing from Apple?

  18. keltari

    @doh – they did learn from Apple. “Rooting” the WinRT will not be easy. Read the HTG article on Win8s secure boot.

  19. brie987

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! This was very very helpful and answered so many questions.

  20. Keith

    Windows….looks like a bunch of mess…only thing Windows is good for is loading Linux on them….!

  21. Nathan J.

    Microsoft is making a colossal mistake with Windows 8, but it’s theirs to make. It’s up to us to not buy it, after all. Hopefully Windows 9 will be better. They will repeat the Vista/7 pattern where Vista was a decent idea with a horrible implementation, and 7 made the idea better and it actually worked. 8 has some good ideas, but they’re incomplete and most (tech enthusiasts) agree it’s crap. 9 will flesh out those ideas into something good and should be a good OS overall. But if gaming on Linux gets serious, I may just switch.

  22. George

    WHAT HAVE MICROSOFT DONE?

  23. Anomaly

    Hopefully Windows 8 will be the excuse most of you need to kick Microcrap to the curb and give Linux a try. If not just boycott Windows 8 and let Microstupid fall flat on it’s face like it did with Vista. If you don’t and Windows 8 is a success you will encourage Microgarabage to continue down the road they are heading and you will have no choice but to switch to Linux eventually because there will be no alternatives.

    I would love to see Mozilla do a n OS similar to Chrome OS. A light weight OS that is mostly browser and release it for download on any device. I would be all over it. Chrome OS is only available preinstalled on machines unless you use some modified version developed from some one other than Google.

  24. Mike

    More crap from MS meant to term you device into a slave to the internet.

  25. Rue

    I’m a long time reader of this awesome blog but I think the articles that you’re posting are deteriorating. And by that I mean quality posts just can’t be seen everyday anymore. In my early days of reading this blog(year 2010) I always find 2 or more post that interests me. I’m also subscribed to the email updates but it seems like nothing is being sent to my email.
    I’ve read this post as well and I think its ok but not as good as the posts that I’m seeing in this blog since year 2010 and 2011.

  26. Anomaly

    @Rue,

    Do you work for Mircocrap? I don’t see how your comment is even slightly relevant to the topic.

  27. Anomaly

    I meant Microcrap.

  28. Fantasm

    I’ve already decided…
    Instead of buying windows 8, i’ll buy a case of beer…
    I’ll feel better about my purchase in the morning… and think of the money i’ll save….

  29. crab

    “The Windows RT desktop is locked-down and only for Microsoft applications. … All third-party applications on Windows RT must be Metro applications, and Metro applications must go through the Windows Store and be approved by Microsoft.”

    As they say on the internets, stopped reading there. Do not want.

  30. Lucky

    Windows 8 RT, heep big crap, this Win 7 user won’t be buying Windows 8 RT or any Windows 8 OS any time soon. I’m still using a Netbook with XP on it, I downgraded it from Vista, also Microsoft crap.

  31. Brendan H

    @ Nathan J.

    I agree re Linux. If gaming was to improve via Linux, I am all over it.

  32. eternal404

    Thanks a lot for clearing things up !

  33. badger_fruit

    Here we go again with Microsoft confusing the market again, Apple’s success can be put down to the lack of choice it gives to consumers, Microsoft seem to enjoy providing so many options it puts people off.

  34. Patrick M

    “Windows RT tablets could even be more expensive than more full-featured Windows 8 x86 tablets.”

    Where in the world are you getting this from? A decent x86 tablet will run on similar hardware to current ultrabooks which run in the $800-1200 range. ARM tablets are running like $350-600.
    MS has said that surface tablets will be priced competitive witihin these two classes (ultrabook and ARM).

    I’m sure there will be some off brand insanely cheap x86 Atom based tablets, if you’re desperate to prove your point.

  35. Andrew

    He’s playing off the $85 number he quotes at the end, but that rumor was incredibly stupid and made no sense. Yet it was repeated on all the blogs anyway. There’s never been one set price that manufacturers pay for Windows, it depends on scale.

  36. David

    If you like a walled garden, but a smooth ui which covers most uses, buy an iPad..
    If you like having control and freedom to tweak, but maybe some rough edges, get an Android tablet..
    If you want windows.. ugh… and have more cash to burn…. buy an x86 windows 8 tablet….

    IF YOU WANT THE WORST PARTS OF THE ABOVE THREE…. WINDOWS RT

    Do yourself a favor… Ditch Windows on tablet form factors. It doesn’t fit. Don’t encourage M$

  37. Mo

    First, Thank you for the great Article.
    Second: let’s face it, we are not the only customers for MS, and not all the Customers are Geeks like to hack and twist and make things work with 100 different way.

    to be honest MS is trying to grab a some of the cake after seeing Apple and Google eating it all without offering piece even the whole tablet idea was MS ages ago.

    Most of people are using the same windows ws pre-installed when they bought the PC 5 years ago. and there are lots of people out there just use the PC just for browsing internet and word processing and this people will be very happy with RT. they can do everything they wants to do.
    Internet, Music, Apps from the store ( games, wallpaper and farting apps) pluse a FREE Office. and i think this will work and the profe is iPad, the people pays alot of money to do the same. how many people you saw since the tablet thing become visable actually using the tablet for something useful apart of playing Angry birds and checking football and watching movies.
    BUT
    if you want a fully functioning windows then PAY my friend fir you want a ultrabook packed like Tablet then Dont complain.
    it is smart to make this move, and i think it will be a success. i am very excited about it but my only important factor to get the PRO version is the price.

  38. TasDevil

    That’s enlightening! I’ve been thinking whether to buy the ARM version and now am having second thoughts. Will stick with Windows 8 for my touch screen computer instead I reckon!

  39. raphoenix

    History does repeat its self often. I wonder if the Windows 8 RT Device will suffer the same fate as the IBM PC Junior machine did ??
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_PCjr

  40. Josh

    I love reading and hearing Linux users discuss how awful Windows 8 looks when they obviously haven’t used the consumer preview yet. Because if they did, they would realize that Windows 8 is similar to Ubuntu. I’ve been using the consumer preview for a few days now. While there are a few things I must get used to, overall I think it’s a strong operating system. Here’s why…

    I have it loaded on a VHD and it’s booting from that extremely fast. A co-worker has it installed on an old laptop he gave his 6 year old son. It runs fast there. If I know the app I want, on the Tiles screen, I can just start typing. The search results are immediate and they display similarly to Ubuntu. If I want the standard Windows desktop to search for something I don’t know the name of (which probably won’t happen often, if ever), I press the desktop button and BAM, there’s the old school look we know. Point is, it’s fast in booting and in navigation.

    You want process management and statistics??? You have it. Windows 8 breaks down nearly every performance factor I would use to test my apps.

    Another feature I love is the horizontal scrolling. I don’t know about your monitors, but I have more real-estate horizontally than vertically. Showing pages of content horizontally rather than vertically lets me see more across my screen real estate.

    I think people with harsh words should hold their criticisms. The majority have obviously not used it. Many of the complaints I’ve read I debunked in the first 30m of using Windows 8. Try it out. In my professional opinion, I think it at warrants trying out the consumer preview on a VHD. If you don’t like you can always remove it. At least see what you think before reading a biased-negative review.

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