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

Microsoft hasn't clearly explained Windows RT, so here's what you need to know.

Image credit: Microsoft

To the naked eye, Windows RT looks just like Windows 8. But it's not. There are huge differences that could cause a lot of confusion for the people who buy Microsoft's Surface tablet that's launching on October 26th. Most people have no clue what Windows RT is, and that's Microsoft's fault for not making it clearer. Let's take a look at what we do know.

Microsoft is launching its new, highly anticipated operating system, Windows 8, to the world on October 26th. On that same date, it will sell its first tablet--one running Windows RT, not Windows 8. (The Surface with Windows 8 is coming three months later.) Confusing, right?

Well, even Microsoft store reps seems to be confused, according to The Verge. When writer Sean Hollister asked eight representatives about the difference between Windows 8 and RT, half of the responses were pretty unhelpful, if not downright wrong. One rep said "They're pretty much the same thing, there is no real huge difference beside the RT is more touch friendly." Now Microsoft says that it is training its reps on the differences between the two operating systems.

Windows expert Paul Thurrott points out this glaring problem too, noting that he's received hundreds of emails with questions that indicate people are confused about Windows RT and Windows 8.

Microsoft does have a section called "Help Me Choose" on its Surface website that outlines key differences, but I think the biggest one is buried beneath the two bullet lists, and its language is confusing.

Microsoft says: "Although you can install apps directly from the Windows Store, you can't install apps on the desktop on Windows RT." What they mean to say is: Windows RT will not run any desktop applications other than the ones bundled with it. Desktop or legacy applications like Adobe Photoshop or even Microsoft Outlook won't run on Windows RT. You can't install programs on Windows RT other than the tablet-optimized apps found in the Windows App Store.

Windows RT does come bundled with Office Home & Student 2013 RT, but note that this doesn't include Outlook. Some other features not included in Windows RT are Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, and domain joining (which kind of kills it for enterprise users).

Because of this, you should think of Windows RT as the tablet, stripped down version of Windows 8. Windows RT tablets are more like the iPad--mobile devices, rather than the full-fledged computers they look like.

For more details on Windows RT vs. Windows 8, see Paul Thurrott's article on how to choose between them or my basic writeup of the difference between the two Surface tablets here.

Windows 8 tablets and laptops will be more capable, but they'll also be more expensive. The Surface with Windows RT is really competitively priced at $499 for the 32GB model and might be more energy efficient because it is powered by an Nvidia ARM processor rather than the Intel processor. So you might still want Windows RT--as long as you know what you're in for.

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