Hands on with Windows RT (finally)

Hands on with Windows RT (finally)

Summary: With this week's unveiling of a handful of Windows RT devices, we finally have a chance to see how well the previously mythical RT desktop works.


Windows 8 has been under a microscope for nearly a year, but its sibling, Windows RT, has been almost a complete mystery until now.

At IFA 2012 in Berlin, the first wave of ARM-powered devices for Windows RT have finally been unveiled, and I had a chance to spend some quality hands-on time with one of them—Samsung’s new ATIV Tab. My colleague Avram Piltch of Laptop Magazine brought along a video camera to record our experience so you can judge for yourself.

A video shot yesterday at the same booth by Ross Miller of The Verge revealed a frustrating experience, with many touch operations failing and Office 2013 especially frustrating to use. If you look closely at the video, though, you can get a sense of how important a little practice is when using touch with the Windows desktop environment. Our experiences were certainly different.

Samsung had the devices arranged in its booth in a tablet-only configuration, minus the keyboard-and-trackpad dock. In that setup, touch is the only option for interacting with the device and its collection of apps.

For the Start screen and the touch-optimized Windows 8 (Metro) apps, the Windows RT experience is, as promised, effortless and smooth. The unanswered questions are all on the Windows RT desktop. I finally have some of those anxiously awaited details.

You have to look carefully to see any differences between the Windows 8 and Windows RT desktops, which are at first (and second) glance identical. That shouldn’t be surprising—the underlying code is essentially identical, just recompiled for the ARM architecture.

Icons for Internet Explorer and File Explorer (formerly known as Windows Explorer) are pinned to the first two positions on the Windows RT taskbar. To their right are icons for the four included Office 2013 Preview apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

If you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find other familiar Windows desktop apps and utilities: Notepad and Paint, the full Administrative Tools set (including Device Manager), and a Control Panel that is indistinguishable from its Windows 8 counterpart. The Remote Desktop Connection utility is included, which means you can connect to another Windows machine via Terminal Services.

A few things are missing, though: WordPad and Windows Media Player, both available in Windows 8, are missing from Windows RT, as are a few oddball utilities like Sticky Notes and Windows Journal.

There’s no question that using the touch interface with File Explorer and Control Panel is something you want to do only when it’s absolutely necessary. As you can see from the videos, Avram and I had less than perfect results in those utilities. With practice, you get better at it, but it’s not optimal.

With the Office 2013 Preview, there's a hidden Touch Mode feature that makes the results much more accurate. Enabling Touch Mode adds space between menu items and makes the touch targets more tolerant, which makes a tremendous difference in the success rate of taps and gestures. (The Office 2013 Preview will be included in the final release of Windows RT; it will be updated to the final release in early 2013 and delivered to Windows RT users via Windows Update.)

That option, which I confirmed is disabled by default, is hidden on the Office 2013 Quick Launch bar. I turned it on at the beginning of my session and had much more accurate results. I wouldn't want to use touch for a lengthy editing session, but it's OK for a quick dip into a document.

Update: Ironically, in the video we shot, Touch Mode is not enabled. I had used it when we were doing an initial runthrough with the device, and then reset the Office environment to default settings before we began our video. So the generally good results I had were using Office 2013 in the same exact configuration as The Verge. Here's a comparison of the ribbon in Word 2013 with Touch Mode disabled (top) and enabled (bottom). Notice the extra space around every command, making them easier to tap.


(Note to Microsoft: Why is Touch Mode not enabled on a tablet in Windows RT? Why is this useful feature so hard to find? And why not add Touch Mode to those built-in Windows utilities?)

In Windows RT, the desktop is a necessary evil. There's no file manager in the touch-friendly environment, and the PC Settings pane offers only a limited selection of options, making the full desktop Control Panel a requirement. When you need to use any of those tools, the touch experience is imperfect at best.

The ATIV Tab includes 2 GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD. Samsung hasn’t confirmed when it’s arriving in the U.S., nor have they disclosed pricing. But based on my hands-on experience, I would recommend budgeting for a keyboard and trackpad for those times when you need to work on the desktop.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Samsung, PCs

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  • Wow

    That wasn't as good as I was hoping, it seemed a bit... non-functioning at times.

    And this is the RTM, guys.

    : |
    Michael Alan Goff
    • The second video says it all

      NONE of the interfaces required to manage the hardware are optimized for touch. DEVICE MANAGER on a TABLET?!? That's a new circle of hell. Device drivers that are SIX YEARS OLD?!? Why does MS keep trying to feed us rotten leftovers as if they're a gourmet meal.

      This is worse than I thought it would be, and I thought it would be terrible.
      • My biggest problem

        It should detect what version it is (Windows RT) and then have the touch style already there. You saw how hard it was for Ed to get to it?

        How is this going to work?
        Michael Alan Goff
        • Considering

          That part is certainly NOT RTM, I am guessing the touch mode being default on touch devices is somthing that will be available when Office 2013 does RTM. Of course, I am betting switching to touch mode is a one time task.
          • I hope they get it fixed, too

            because... it shouldn't even be a one time thing.

            And for those of you who think I want this to fail? Hogwash, I want Windows RT to succeed. I don't want another monopoly, but I want it to succeed. Maybe this would push Apple to making Pages on the iPad better.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • Let's see if they make it a default

            Of course they really should. To be honest, I do believe they should have made Office available on WinRT, but I am sure the api is not capable of offering everything that win32 offers at the moment. So that's why the desktop is there now. On the other side, even if they would be able to offer a fully functional office version on WinRT, the question remains if that would be usable using touch only, it probably isn't and never will be. I use an ipad2, and typing on it is certainly a challenge, the mechanical feedback on a normal keyboard is missing on a touch interface, probably the reason why the surface will ship with one by default.

            I personally will never buy a WinRT tablet, as I am looking for a hybrid, consumption using touch and productive using mouse and keyboard, having the desktop and full backwards compatibility on a x86 Win8 tablet would be just what I am looking for, yeah I have to make due with lesser battery life, but I get the power of a powerfull intel processor. And Intel seems to quickly come close to arm in this department, I installed a HP ultrabook with i5 processor that can get 9 hours on ome charge, pretty good I would say.
          • A bit ironic, isn't it

            Microsoft, the greatest software house of all times, designs their new "Windows" runtime (WinRT), only to find out later, that it's very own creation (or was it licensed from someone else?) is incapable of coding their very own (and most important) software: Office.

            Weird, isn't it?
          • Why is that weird ?

            WinRT is a new api, made from scratch, it will certainly take a while for it will reach feature parity with Win32, if it ever does.
          • You are so

            Full of it
          • Words

            Word is better so why don't you just use that ....
          • I heard this same song with Metro

            "It's not RTM. It can't be that crappy when MS finally releases it; they'll fix it."

            Guess what? What you saw in the preview was exactly what you got in the RTM. And it will be the same with this POS touch interface as well. Seriously folks. When you saw MS shove a touch interface into your face on a WIMP platform, did you really think they wouldn't shove a WIMP interface into your face on a touch platform?
      • Here is a thought ...

        ... if you want to do considerable work on the desktop, and you find that the desktop, which was not made for touch, does not in fact work well with touch, spring for mouse, keyboard, and maybe stylus accessories. This is called choice. Many people who buy Windows RT tablets, will spend less than 0.01% of their time on the desktop. These tablets - without any accessories - will be great for them. Those who need to do considerable work on the desktop, can get tablets that are better configured towards this requirement. And those who need to run legacy Windows apps, can get Windows 8 hybrids, which allow them to do a range of activity in both the new interface, and desktop. So the moral of the story is, get a Windows 8/RT device configured in a manner that suits your needs. Windows 8/RT was not crafted for a single device configuration to suit everybody's needs. Windows 8/RT was crafted to be used in a range of PC configurations, that people can choose from, which best meet their individual needs.
        P. Douglas
        • Funny

          *3 months ago*

          Windows 8 is all work all the time. You'll be able to use it for everything, even Windows RT. That's what makes it better than the iPad, it gets real work done all the time.


          Okay, so you get this accessory here and it works just like a laptop. It's still better than an iPad, though, because it has Office. Oh, and it comes in different sizes. So what if the iPad has Pages for 10$? This is Office!

          Yes, you get shipped to the desktop.

          No, you can't really do anything else with it. Why would you? The desktop isn't made with touch in mind.

          Yep, this is what I've been waiting for. A no compromise solution with tons of compromises.
          Michael Alan Goff
          • All this fuss over nothing

            Just how complicated is it to grasp the concept that if you are not going to do much activity on the desktop, and you like tablets, get a pure Windows RT tablet. If you are going to want to do considerable Windows fine tuning, do other work in the desktop, and would be satisfied with only Office desktop apps, along with modern Windows UI apps, get a Windows RT device configured with a keyboard, mouse / trackpad, etc. If the above does not fit your needs, get Windows 8 on another device, that's configured to your liking.

            I don't get it. If you go to a car dealership, and the first car you see does not meet your needs, do you ignore all the other choices available, and criticize the car dealer, that the car you examined does not meet your needs?

            Michael Alan Goff, I don't understand your criticism. If someone wants to use the desktop considerably in Windows 8/RT, all he needs to do is buy a system with a keyboard and mouse / trackpad. Is this concept intellectually beyond you? Do you think lugging around an iPad and Mac laptop; buying two sets of applications and hardware support; synching data between apps, etc., is simpler than merely attaching and detaching a keyboard to a tablet?
            P. Douglas
          • Mr criticism

            is based around the fact that this was supposed to be a device for everything, but whenever people started to criticize some problems it has.... I'm suddenly told that it ca't do everything and we should be okay with that.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • You won't

            Use it anyway. You'll be using you iPad.
          • Get an Windows RT tablet

            @P. Douglas,

            Aren't we discussing exactly Windows RT tablets here?

            Why would anyone want to buy an Windows RT tablet, when they can get an (possibly cheaper) Android or Apple tablet and be confident there will be tons of apps for any possible usage. Including word processing.
          • Or even a windoze laptop

            Which will do all the crap they need.

            They ridiculed the iPad when they started to make a detachable keyboard for it but now when Micro$oft does it, it's supposed to be all well and good.

            Cylon Centurion
          • Ceylon

            You are a idiot.
          • No, I am GOD

            And don't you forget it, ass_hole.
            Cylon Centurion