Hands on with Windows RT (finally)

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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