Windows RT vs Windows 8: On the Surface, there's still a lot of confusion

Windows RT vs Windows 8: On the Surface, there's still a lot of confusion

Summary: Microsoft Surface has been popular enough for pre-orders to sell out but there's continuing confusion among users and IT pros about what the Windows RT operating system it runs is and what the OS does.


When Apple first announced the iPhone, it initially claimed that it ran OS X. While iOS shares some important technologies with the Mac operating system, it's a different beast. Mac programs run on OS X, iOS apps run on iPhones and iPads (and it's a long time since Apple suggested otherwise). 

Things aren't quite as clear with Windows 8 and Windows RT – while you do get more options, not everything runs everywhere.

Surface tablet
Just how easy is it to get Windows 8 and Windows RT straight in your head?

Windows 8 runs almost everything: Windows 7 and Vista programs, or maybe even ones for Windows XP, if the hundreds of compatibility 'shims' programmed into Windows or the built-in Hyper-V virtualisation can fool the program into thinking it's where it was designed to be.

You can also install an Android emulator called Bluestacks, you can run Java, you can install Silverlight and Adobe's AIR runtime or .NET version 2 if that's what your program needs. You can install development tools and compile your own applications. You can load up any browser you want. You can even install a launcher that looks like the messy old Start menu, if you find the live tiles of the Start screen just too new and shiny for you. And you can also plug in your camera or your printer or a keyboard or a foam USB missile launcher...

It's Windows, so of course it runs the desktop, and Office. Windows 8 also runs a new kind of app that's more like a smartphone app, using a new Windows Runtime called WinRT for short. (These apps get called a lot of different things since Microsoft had to drop "Metro style apps" and all the names are confusing, so I'm sticking to WinRT.)

Windows RT

And what of Windows RT? Well, Windows RT has the desktop and Office as well, and the new WinRT apps. It can connect to the camera and the printer and quite possibly the foam missile launcher.

It's very like Windows 8 because it has almost all the same technology under the hood - but it can't run any desktop programs except Office and IE.

But any programs you already have for your PC, a non-IE desktop browser like Firefox or Chrome, or any new PC programs you buy that ask for Windows 8 - they won't work and you can't even try to install them.

So, you can't install any old version of Skype, but you can run the new Skype for Windows 8 (because it's a WinRT app that runs on both). You can't have Photoshop or CorelDRAW on Windows RT - but if Adobe and Corel do WinRT apps like their Android or iOS apps, you could have Photoshop Touch or Pinnacle Studio on your Surface. Or you could wait three months and have Photoshop itself on Surface Pro, because that runs Windows 8.

Surface management

It's confusing, yes, but aren't we familiar with the differences now? A recent survey about Surface by SecureData makes me wonder.

Eighty-four percent of respondents said they believe the most attractive feature of the Surface is that it is capable of running regular Windows applications, according to the report. So they must mean Surface Pro, which runs Windows 8? But in the small print the definition of "regular Windows applications" is "Microsoft Office products - Word, PowerPoint, Excel" and they all run on Windows RT and the Surface RT.

And what about "44 percent of respondents believe that the Surface will be easier to adopt across their organisations compared to other devices due to the Windows 8 operating system"? Easier to adopt usually means easier to manage: again, Surface Pro with Windows 8 accepts any GPO you throw at it, but Surface RT you can only manage through Windows Intune and EAS.

Managing a PC with Intune is much more hands-off than managing a PC with Group Policy. You can push updates, but Windows RT gets updates directly from Windows Update so you don't need to.  You can find out what software is installed on the desktop, but Windows RT doesn't allow extra desktop software. You can get reports about how many Surfaces are in use or if they're low on disk space, and you can set firewall and VPN policies. Most usefully, you can run a portal where users can download WinRT apps you'd like them to use or contact the helpdesk easily.

And, while you can do all that through SP1 of System Center Configuration Manager 2012, you can't do all the other things you expect to do to a PC from System Center. That's deliberate, because most of the time it isn't your PC (or the company's PC) you're trying to do it to, it's the Windows RT device a user brought to work themselves and they'd rather you didn't mess around with it.

So if you've ordered a Surface RT or you're waiting for employees who ordered one to bring it in next week, here's what you need to remember.

Surface RT and other Windows RT tablets: 

  • Do run Office - Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote and Lync 
  • Don't run any other desktop application and you won't see desktop applications when you visit the Windows Store 
  • Do have the desktop 
  • Do run WinRT applications that you can download from the Windows Store 
  • Can be managed via EAS like any other tablet 
  • Can be managed by Intune like a PC 
  • Can't be managed by Group Policies like a PC 
  • Do seem to confuse people in surveys 

Topics: Microsoft, Tablets, Windows, Windows 8 in Business

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • There is a very simple answer as to what will run on Windows RT

    1. Open the Windows Store on your Windows RT device.
    2. Is the app displayed?
    Yes: The app will run on Windows RT.
    No: The app will not run on Windows RT.

    The only people "confused" by this are people who are being paid by Apple in order to spread the word that this is confusing. Apple is going on the offensive here and their marketing arm is working overtime to fill the Internet with astroturfers. So far, they seem to be succeeding.

    How sad that, if Apple succeeds, hundreds of millions of consumers who could be very happy with Surface RT will be denied access to the perfect device for them because of a misinformation campaign spearheaded by Apple? Surface should succeed (or fail) based on its merits, not based on how effectively Apple was able to embed their misinformation deep into the minds of prospective Microsoft customers.
    • toddbottom3 how do you get around the sticky feel

      that the rubber based key pad/board gives you when your trying to type or use in other actions? Even Loverock Davidson confided to me that he's really upset with issue and isn't sure he's going to keep his testers unit because of its sticky feeling. If Loverock Davidson is that concerned than I think we all should be. A tacky keyboard could be a deal breaker for many millions of potential users.........oh welll, time will tell.
      Over and Out
      • I never new fabric was sticky

        The touch case has a fabric feel, almost like a short fleece effect, it has no sticky feel what so ever, I suppose it could develop one over time dependent on one chosen Internet destination. The surface wipes the floor with ipad in all areas when it come to people who wish to use it for anything but playing games and watching films, and if that's what you like to do, might I suggest a 50" plasma.
        Ex ipad owner
        • Windows Tiles...

          Look a whole lot better on a HDTV than icons ever did that's for sure.
          widow maker
          • ?

            Maybe if your 12. The windows phone 7 sales showed the distatste the consumer has for the ugly tile look.
          • lol

            WP7 lacked some features which didn't help its was a soft-launch in my mind. WP8 will fix that with good hardware and once again a superior mobile OS.

            Surface RT is a Tablet OS. It's designed to run Windows Store Apps. Do we think consumers are so dumb that they can't differentiate the Win 8 from Win 8 RT? Do people know that they can't install Mac programs on an IOS device? YES! It's not that complicated. The media needs to remove its mouth from the apple core, wipe and give Microsoft a fair shot. Win 8, WP8 and Win 8 RT are beautiful devices and have a lot to offer consumers.
          • I see you are doing your job

            being an MS apologist.
          • Better technology doesn't guarantee market success

            I would have though people understood this by now. Never heard of the Sony Betamax?
          • Sony Betamax is my childhood

            Betamax is a huge success in Asia, I've been renting and watching betamax videos since my childhood until the day Video CD comes out..
          • I didn't notice that as the problem

            "The windows phone 7 sales showed the distatste the consumer has for the ugly tile look."

            And here I thought it was carriers like Verizon with just one model, while pushing their investment in Android via their sales associates.

            But that's just me since the phones where sold out when I went to get mine 2 years ago.
            William Farrel
        • The ASUS Transformer tablet setup is better than...

          either iPad or Surface setup. The only thing Surface has going for it is the Windows 8 SOFTWARE on the upcoming Surface Pro. But even then, ASUS has already demoed the 800 which is a Transformer setup with their fantastic dockable keyboard setup.

          Get the ASUS 800 instead.
        • How do you know?

          Surface haven't been on the market for one day. It's preorder.

          I guess you have had prototype units which would not account to reality.

          And by the way, this is not about Surface being better than iPad but being up to par with Windows users expectations. Most will hope they are buying a low priced lightweight, high battery life Windows tablet and if they think they got an app-less iPad, they will cry foul.
        • You talk about a product that you have yet to even touch

          as if you have had your fill of koolaide.
      • Use a different keyboard?

        You don't have to buy the touch keyboard with a Microsoft Surface tablet. You can also get the Type Keyboard which has a more traditional feel, or you can plug in any other keyboard with the USB port (or Bluetooth).
        • Any other keyboard...

          will only work if it's USB HID, that rules out any Entretainment keyboards, gamers boards and almost all keyboards that use a dongle older than Windows 7.

          We must always remember that there are drivers here that need installing. Windows RT will not accept any new drivers.

          The easiest way to compare Surface RT to is with LED TVs who have USB ports. You can't hook any Wireless adapter or any USB stick.
          • Windows RT has class drivers

            The class drivers included with Windows RT mean whole classes of devices will work when you plug them in; absolutely any USB memory stick, the vast majority of keyboards and controllers, printers without a specific driver... hardware that needs specific software can also put up a notification to get the right software from the Windows Store. This might be the biggest differentiator for RT - how many peripherals will work.
    • I disagree

      People need to understand what will run on their Windows RT device *before* they buy one, so your approach of "check the Windows Store on the device" will not help them.

      I'm a Windows guy. I pre-ordered a Surface. But you can like Microsoft and not be an Apple shill and come to the conclusion that yes, Virginia, a segment of the population is going to have trouble with this. I guarantee you my parents and wife would be confused about it, particularly if Microsoft doesn't do a good job of explaining it. And their naming choices have not helped. They should be calling "Windows Store" apps "Windows RT apps" to help associate them with Windows RT devices (just like Mary chose to do). Frankly, they should have come up with a better name than Windows RT in the first place.

      I don't think this is a disaster or dooms the platform or anything ridiculous like that, but Microsoft had better know it's going to be an issue for 20% to 40% of the population. They have some 'splainin' to do.
      • Naming them...

        Windows Store apps might confuse Win8 users who then might think those apps won't run on their devise when in fact they will run on both.

        Is this really any more confusing than Win Pro, Win Home, Win student, Win Enterprise? I can tell you I never fully paid any attention to the difference. All I would need is a sticker that read, "Runs all your existing Windows applications and software!!!"
        widow maker
        • two points

          Nothing about the term "Windows Store" would make any rational Windows user think that programs purchased through it won't run on their Windows computer, especially since Windows 8 includes links to the Windows Store. That's a non-issue.

          As for all of the previous versions of windows - the situation is far more confusing than before; only in the rarest of cases would a program written for one version of Windows XP (home, professional, server) or 7 (home premium, business, ultimate, server) not run on another version of that operating system. And the programs that do have specific requirements are generally targeted at high-end users - (ie - renderers and database applications that can scale past a couple of physical CPU's...). Even so, those programs generally can scale down to run on more limited hardware.

          Windows 8 and RT on the other hand, are miles apart. New Windows store apps work on RT, but anything you've owned previously won't work unless the developers have released a new version through the Store - Quicken, Quickbooks, for examples.

          Likewise, Windows 8 users can hit any flash-based website they choose and have the same experience as before; Windows RT users visiting a flash based site need to hope that that site is on microsoft's "approved" list, or else they'll have no luck.

          That is far more confusing than any difference between windows versions of the same vintage.
          Lucas Krupinski
      • Wise words

        People should be open to trying other platforms and devices. But claiming that everybody questioning Microsoft's communication about Windows 8 vs. Windows RT are "paid by Apple" just doesn't make any sense (what about this guy; www.winsupersite .com/article/windows8/windows-rt-redmond-problem-144554).