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HTG Explains: What You Can (and Can’t) Do on the Desktop in Windows RT

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Windows RT and Windows 8 aren’t the same thing. While Windows RT has a desktop that looks just like Windows 8’s, Windows RT’s desktop is very limited. The difference doesn’t just matter to geeks; it matters to all Windows users.

We’ve explained the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8 before. Unlike Windows RT, Windows 8 includes a fully functional desktop (although there’s no Start menu by default.)

No Non-Microsoft Apps on the Desktop

The most jarring change on Windows RT is that, while there’s a desktop present that looks just like the desktop found on Windows 8, you can’t install your own software on it. You can only run the preinstalled Microsoft applications on the desktop.

Windows RT runs on the ARM architecture, while Windows 8 and previous versions of Windows use the x86 architecture. Windows desktop application developers would have to modify their applications to work on Windows RT. However, Microsoft won’t allow them to do so. Microsoft is using the architecture change to force third-party app developers to write apps for the new Modern environment instead of the traditional desktop environment.

This means that, if you want to use the desktop on a Windows RT system, you’ll be using Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. OpenOffice and Mozilla Firefox won’t be options. If you wanted to edit pictures and text files on the desktop, you could use MS Paint and Notepad, but you couldn’t install Paint.NET or Notepad++. Instead, Microsoft wants you to install third-party apps from the Windows Store. These apps run in the Modern interface formerly known as Metro.

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Preinstalled Windows Desktop Apps

The Windows RT desktop includes the usual assortment of applications that come with Windows. Some of the most important applications are a desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 and File Explorer (formerly known as Windows Explorer) for managing your files.

Most other preinstalled programs, including Notepad and MS Paint, are also available. However, Windows Media Player is not available for Windows RT – Microsoft wants you to use the new Music and Videos apps in the Modern interface instead.

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Microsoft Office

Significantly, Windows RT includes preinstalled versions of four Microsoft Office 2013 applications: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

While there’s a Modern app for OneNote, there are no Modern Word, Excel, or PowerPoint apps. If you purchase a Windows tablet like the Surface RT, you’ll have to use the touch-unfriendly desktop to use the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications. You can enable Touch Mode in the Office 2013 applications, but the desktop itself is just not designed for touch input.

While Windows RT has a strong focus on the new Modern interface, Microsoft’s most important productivity applications are still confined exclusively to the desktop. It’s unclear why no Modern versions of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint are included. One theory is that the desktop may just be more useful than the new Modern interface for these sorts of productivity applications. Another theory is that Microsoft failed to get the Office team onboard with the new interface. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

While Microsoft is pitching Windows RT devices as tablets you can use to get real work done, the included version of Office 2013 is based on Office Home & Student. If you wanted to use Office applications on Windows RT for business (or “revenue-generating”) use, you’d technically have to pay Microsoft for commercial-use rights. These Office applications also do not have support for macros or add-ins.

Configuring Your Tablet

The Windows desktop also contains the traditional Windows Control Panel and offers all the usual settings it offers. While Windows 8 and Windows RT offer a Modern-style PC Settings app, the new interface doesn’t contain all the options found in the standard Windows Control Panel.

If you want to install language packs, change Internet Explorer 10’s default search engine, and modify other less-commonly-used settings, you’ll need to leave the touch-friendly Modern environment and use the Control Panel on the desktop. These settings are available in the touch interfaces on competing tablet operating systems.

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Why Is The Desktop There?

There’s no getting around it: The Desktop feels out-of-place on Windows RT. Going all-in with Modern apps and abandoning the Desktop on Windows RT would probably have made for a more cohesive experience.

The desktop is still useful for two primary reasons: Changing settings that can’t yet be changed from the Modern PC Settings app and using Microsoft Office applications, which haven’t yet been ported to the new Modern interface by the Office team.

In future versions of Windows RT, expect the desktop to disappear entirely as Office apps are written for the Modern environment and more settings are added to the PC Settings app. By not allowing third-party developers to develop applications for Windows RT’s desktop, Microsoft has made it clear that they shouldn’t rely on the desktop being around in future versions of Windows RT.


When buying a new Windows tablet or laptop computer, be sure to consider how important desktop applications are to you. Windows 8 (x86) and Windows RT (ARM) systems both have a desktop that looks similar in stores, but you’ll notice a difference when you get home and try to install your own applications.

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 11/9/12

Comments (27)

  1. Lee

    So what happens if someone created a program and compiled it for the ARM architecture? Would Win8 RT not even let them run the EXE file at all? Has anyone tried, or put up a video about it?

  2. Andacar

    That’s a question I’m wondering too. As a loooong time Windows user, I can see a lot of things about Windows 8 that are encouraging. Microsoft is often called a “me too” company that can’t innovate (mostly by Mac cultists) and 8 proves them wrong. But one thing I wish they hadn’t done is adopt the worst page from the Apple playbook: a completely closed architecture.

  3. Grant

    @Lee Desktop applications are limited to those preinstalled. Modern UI apps (Metro, or whatever they cal it this week) are limited to applications installed by way of the Windows Application Store. There is not currently a way to run your own applications on it. You also cannot yet decide that you like the hardware, but not the software and install a different operating system. These limitations apply only to the ARM version of Windows 8.

  4. Lasse

    Even worse: No PowerShell? No RT!

  5. Darakus

    @Lasse
    If thats true I shed an 8-bit geek tear.

  6. Sirmentio

    Well, Let’s just hope there are some sort of registry tweaks for Windows RT…(If there IS Regedit for windows RT)

  7. Sirmentio

    When i mean that i mean some sort of tweaks to allow 3rd party software for windows 8…

  8. Bigtech

    It’s not a matter of registry tweaks I think. This stuff is not so much in the settings but in the code itself. It will not allow you to run an app that was not preinstalled or purchased from the Windows App Store.

    Man. It’s like History Repeating itself. MS is essentially trying for a consumer and developer lock-in. WIth this new suite of WIndows crud honestly… me thinks the time has come to shift to Linux. Packages like Ubuntu are already pretty up there in terms of compatibility and functionality. Just need the Game Devs on board and they’ll kick MS to the curb so hard.

    THe Work apps will follow quickly enough once they realize a lot of users have a linux machine as their primary rig they’ll be more apt to build software straight for linux.

  9. Isaac

    The most funny part is those windows 8 zealots that all the time are saying that you have to accept the change, that if you don’t do, you are against progress, that windows 8 is the best…. if this is progress I rather prefer to be stuck in the windows 7 past. I’ve use windows 8 on my laptop for 3 weeks and ended putting back windows 7. Simply is unusable for non touch users. As for RT, if you can install software outside metro UI, then for me is dead on arrival, I will never buy a RT Tablet….

  10. Yu

    http://mollyrocket.com/casey/stream_0004.html

    Nice essay on future prospects of Windows, making a point against the “you can still install your own apps on the desktop” argument. Bottomline is, the desktop is already declared a legacy mode and eventually support will be dropped. Which means that eventually no source for software other than the Windows store will exist.

    The limitations of the Windows RT desktop seem to support that point.

    Needing all kinds of different non-professionally written software for my university work, this policy might eventually force me away from Windows. Whether I like it or not.

    PS: I hope, I didn’t find the link to that essay on howtogeek ._.

  11. Chris

    I have Windows 8 installed on two computers. Neither has a touch screen. I simply do not understand people like Isaac claiming this is unworkable. I think the naysayers are saying more about themselves and their inability to adapt, than they are the operating system. One of my Win 8 PCs is a low powered, single core machine and under Win 8 everything is much snappier than with Win 7.

  12. Moshe

    @Darakus There certainly is PowerShell in Windows RT
    @Sirmentio Windows RT does include Regedit (thank God!!)

  13. Atakan

    Not going to lie, it had some great ideas, but trying to be like apple and making it so nothing enters the closed box is a big loss for me

  14. Isaac

    Chris my adaptability is very high, but if you try to sell me a square wheel and tell me that this progress and the future, you can keep your square wheel, I will continue using round ones.

    By the way I use or used, Linux, Minix, OS/x , MacOS, Windows (included Pocket PC and variants), Beos, Android, iOS, Unix, RISC OS, etc, etc, as for hardware, almost everything that has a cpu inside, Mainframes, desktop, laptops, tablets, pocket pcs, handhelds (Psion 3c and 5mx, loved them)….so I think I’m quite “adaptable”…

  15. Marco

    @Isaac

    It doesn’t matter how many OSe’s you have used. You just proved how stupid you are..

  16. Funny Man

    @Marco: Your statement doesn’t make a bit of sense.

  17. Chris

    Marco, there is no call for personal insults. Isaac is clearly very adaptable which leaves me wondering why he can’t get along with Win 8. Analogies about round and square wheels tell us nothing. At 74 I have had no trouble adapting so younger blokes should have no problems.

  18. penneykate

    This application has requested the Runtime to terminate it in an unusual wa

  19. your humble narrator

    Those Word buttons in Office 2012 look strange just floating in white space. Do not like.

  20. your humble narrator

    ^ *Office 2013

  21. Sirmentio

    Don’t you think that microsoft should just think about the USERS of the laptop users? Seriously, they should just throw Windows 8 in the Recycle bin and make it so windows RT allow 3rd party software.

  22. Sirmentio

    Well then Roshe: If you excuse me, I am going to get a VM of windows RT (Some way, somehow) then tweak it a little…

  23. jokergallagher

    all this means is that windows RT (not the main version of windows 8) is for the people who want a windows alternative to a ipad or android tablet. this also makes windows RT for tablets, not slates. slates well run full windows 8. which I have and I run lots of desktop apps including sims 3. so again RT is for the “simple” user

  24. DaFoo

    If you want to install 3rd party software, just get a Windows 8 tablet. If you just want a tablet that has long battery life and use to do quotidian tasks like browsing the web, get the RT tablet.

    It ain’t hard.

  25. TYL

    I’m with Isaac. Win8 is designed for a touch screen. Using it in a “traditional” computer is tolerable but not optimal. A new crop of laptops (and monitors) with touch screens is coming out which makes transitioning to Win8 easier. I’ve seen a few in Best Buy. With that said, I don’t see using Win8 in a office environment – multiple screens located 24″ away practical, touch screen or not.

    I enjoy this thread of discussions. Please do not degenerate to name calling.

  26. emmanuellws

    I think if NVIDIA Tegra takes over the world from INTEL, and we all started to move towards Windows RT, it will be the end of INTEL. Windows RT + NVIDIA Tegra chips = “Slim Windows Tablet.” As long as the INTEL processor is still inside the box, the Windows Tablet cant go slimmer than any android or ipad tablet.

  27. emmanuellws

    I think if NVIDIA Tegra takes over the world from INTEL, and we all started to move towards Windows RT, it will be the end of INTEL. Windows RT + NVIDIA Tegra chips = “Slim Windows Tablet.” As long as the INTEL processor is still inside the box, the Windows Tablet cant go slimmer than an android or ipad tablet.

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