How the Windows RT Desktop Differs from Windows 8

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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 Twitter.