Win8 vs. Windows RT: What to know before you buy

Woody Leonhard

During recent travels around the western U.S., I asked many computer salespeople about Windows 8 — and was truly shocked at inaccurate information provided about the new OS.

Few knew the key differences between versions, and almost all offered “advice” that was way off the mark.

On October 26, Microsoft will release two distinctly different versions of its latest OS — Windows 8 and Windows RT. Do you know the difference? Try tackling these seemingly simple, real-world questions. I’ll provide the correct answers (they might surprise you) to these questions and others further below. They should help you make the right Windows choice — especially if you’re interested in a new Windows-based tablet.

  • Is it true I have to buy all apps for my new Surface tablet from Microsoft’s Windows Store?
  • Will all Windows Store apps work on the new Microsoft Surface tablets?
  • I use LastPass to manage all my passwords. Will LastPass work with Lenovo’s IdeaPad tablets and notebooks?
  • Are there significant differences between Office 2013 and Office 2013 RT?
  • My new Windows tablet came with Word 2013 preinstalled. Can I print documents from Word on my HP LaserJet?
  • Can I sync SkyDrive files with my new Surface tablet?
  • Can I run Outlook on the new Microsoft Surface tablets? How about Windows Live Mail or Windows Photo Gallery?

Significant differences separate RT and Win8

Back in August, I wrote a Top Story that delved into the ways Windows 8 differed from Windows RT. Here’s how I summarized those differences:

“Windows RT is the version of Windows 8 that doesn’t run Windows programs.”

That’s really the heart of the matter — and it’s the source of ongoing confusion for consumers, sales clerks, and others who really should know what you can — and can’t — do with the two OSes.

In a July column, “Win8 + Windows RT + WinRT = mass confusion,” I chided Microsoft for its extraordinarily poor choice of terminology. I urged the Redmondians to get the confusion sorted out so consumers can make an easily understood, informed decision about Win8 and Windows RT — on both traditional PCs and tablets. But as best I can tell, Microsoft has done virtually nothing to make the distinctions clear.

Soon, you’ll be able to buy two fundamentally different kinds of computers that share the Windows name. And unlike the iPad, hardware won’t define the version of OS installed. Desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and slates will all run Windows 8. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see Windows RT on a desktop, but it will be found on various ultralight laptops, tablets, and other mobile devices.

Unfortunately, with the two OSes sharing a similar name and appearance, many Windows 8 buyers might make a costly mistake — they’ll have purchased a Windows RT–based device that’s not up to their needs. Windows RT does look and run like Windows 8, but it does not run traditional Windows apps.

Although Microsoft has been extraordinarily coy about the details, it now appears that Windows RT computers will run look-alikes of standard, built-in Windows apps (such as Paint, WordPad, and Notepad). According to an Office Next blog, there will be RT versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote — all with complete document compatibility. The first Windows RT devices shipped to customers in October will include preview versions of those apps that will be updated automatically to full versions over the next three months.

Windows RT should spur a new generation of touch-centric software, but it also presents a high barrier for apps you’ve come to know. Coding for the Windows RT platform is completely different from coding for traditional Windows. Some third-party software companies might try to rewrite their existing Windows programs to work in the tiled Windows RT/Metro world — and will fail. Many developers won’t bother; moving apps built for a mouse-and-keyboard environment to touch-and-swipe isn’t worth the effort.

Because it runs on its own hardware platform (CPU and support chips), Windows RT doesn’t support the vast catalog of existing Windows drivers. For example, none of the existing Win7 drivers will work on Windows RT. So hardware manufacturers are now saddled with creating, shipping, and supporting an entire new generation of hardware drivers for the new platform — and they’re all “Version 1.0.”

Bottom line: If you have a modern piece of hardware from a well-known manufacturer, it might be supported in Windows RT — or maybe not.

Some answers to basic Win8/RT questions

Here are the answers — as best I know — to those questions above and a few more. They’re certainly more accurate than what you’ll likely get at the local computer retail store.

Q1: Is it true I have to buy all apps for my new Surface tablet from Microsoft’s Windows Store?

A: Yes. All Windows RT apps will have to be purchased through the Windows Store. But don’t feel too bad — Apple does the same thing with iPad and iPhone apps. Keep in mind that only RT apps will run on Windows RT devices. (The first MS Surface tablets will run only Windows RT. Surface tablets that run Windows 8 — and thus standard Win8 apps available everywhere — should appear in January.)

Q2: Will all Windows Store apps work on the new Microsoft Surface tablets?

A: No. This is another one of those bizarre gotchas that really make the Windows RT situation complicated. Some of the apps in the Windows Store will work only with Windows 8 machines — they won’t work at all on Windows RT. Other Windows Store apps are designed to work with Windows 8 Phones, though it isn’t certain whether a Windows Phone app will work on a Windows RT machine. Check before you buy.

Q3: I use LastPass to manage all my passwords. Will LastPass work with Lenovo’s IdeaPad tablets and notebooks?

A: Depends. If you get a Windows 8 IdeaPad, you can install LastPass on the Win8 Desktop and it will work with Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, or Firefox. However, if you buy a Windows RT–based IdeaPad, you’re up the ol’ creek without a paddle. Windows RT includes the Metro version of Internet Explorer, but that browser, by design, doesn’t support add-ons. (Now, try explaining that to your less-geeky family members.)

Q4: Are there significant differences between Office 2013 and Office 2013 RT?

A: Unknown. Microsoft has publicly shown only preview and beta copies of both. The final versions aren’t expected until next year.

Q5: Reportedly, new Windows tablets will come with Word 2013 preinstalled. Can I print documents from Word on my HP LaserJet?

A: Possibly. If you bought a Windows RT tablet (some tablets will run Windows 8), Word 2013 RT is included. But printing support depends on the model of HP LaserJet you’re using — some will work immediately with Windows RT, others won’t. HP has a lengthy list of supported and unsupported printers on its website. (Be sure to read the footnotes at the bottom of the page.)

Anticipate similar problems with any peripheral you might want to use with a Windows RT machine. Although Windows 8 driver support is nearly universal (every Win7 driver and almost all Vista drivers will work with Win8), Windows RT–driver support will be hit-and-miss.

Q6: Can I sync SkyDrive files with my new Surface tablet?

A: No. You can retrieve files from SkyDrive using the Metro SkyDrive app, but you can’t have the app automatically grab updated SkyDrive files and copy them onto your RT device (the way people commonly use SkyDrive on the Windows desktop). There are probably solid reasons why automatic sync isn’t supported — its impact on battery life could be one. That said, some future version of the Metro SkyDrive app might give you the ability to sync manually. (Battery considerations probably preclude any sort of automatic synching.)

Q7: Any problem with buying a handful of Windows RT tablets and using them in my small business?

A: That’s complicated. Currently, the only version of Office announced for Windows RT is Office Home & Student 2013 RT, which does not include Outlook. The other announced versions of Office 2013 won’t run on Windows RT. The license for the standard Windows version of Office Home & Student doesn’t allow for its use in a company, nonprofit, or organizational setting of any kind. So it’s highly likely that the license for the RT version of Office won’t cover use in your business, either.

You can, on the other hand, purchase a tablet that runs Windows 8 (such as the MS Surface Pro, due out early next year) and run any standard Office version.

Q8: Can I run Outlook on the new Microsoft Surface tablets? How about Windows Live Mail or Windows Photo Gallery?

A: No, no, and no. Any Surface tablet that ships before January will be running Windows RT. As already noted, Outlook isn’t among the Office Home & Student 2013 RT apps. Moreover, all Windows Essentials/Live Essentials programs are standard Windows apps; they won’t run on Windows RT, either (as should be clear by now).

The one exception: You can use Internet Explorer 10, running in Windows RT, to access the Outlook Web App, assuming you’re set up with Exchange Server and have OWA available. Try explaining that to your boss.

Q9: I own an iPad and sync it with my PC. Will I be able to sync my iPad with one of the new Windows Surface PCs from Microsoft?

A: No. At least not with the Windows RT versions of Surface. Because Windows RT doesn’t run traditional Windows programs, you can’t crank up iTunes and sync a Windows RT tablet with your iPad or PC. Apple might, however, eventually write a Metro-style version of iTunes (when pigs fly). Surface Pro, because it uses Windows 8, will run iTunes.

Q10: What do I do if I bought the wrong kind of Windows tablet?

A: Depends. I expect to hear this question about a hundred thousand times in the next few months. I assume some of the retailers and manufacturers will be lenient and allow you to return your purchase — if you can explain why you got confused in the first place. But it’s going to be painful to watch buyers explaining to store clerks that “Yes, there is a difference between Windows RT and Windows 8.”

Perhaps taking a copy of this article with you when you ask for a refund might help!



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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.