What’s The Difference Between Windows 8 & Windows RT? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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With the Surface tablet announcement a few weeks ago and the final release of Windows 8 looming ever closer, some people are understandably going to be confused about the various versions available.

I’m here to set the record straight; at least, on the differences between Windows 8, and Windows RT. Read on to find out about the various differences, as well as the pros and cons of each system.

Runs On Different Hardware

The primary difference between these two versions is the hardware it will run on. Nearly all PCs, and even newer Apple Macs, run on standardised x86 hardware, with a CPU from either Intel or AMD. Older Macs used a different PowerPC standard, but since switching over to Intel x86 chips, you’ve been able to run Windows on your Mac hardware too with either BootCamp or in a virtual machine. Windows software is currently all designed to run on x86 hardware.

However, you might be running a 64-bit version of Windows – this is actually still based on x86 standards though. x86 began as 16 bit, then 32 bit, and more recently 64 bit. All of it is still x86 though. You may see it sometimes refered to as “x86 vs x64“, but what they actually mean is “x86-32 or x86-64“.

Windows RT however is a special version of Windows 8; it’s designed to run not on traditional PC x86 hardware, but on the completely different ARM architecture. ARM chips are widely used in embedded systems; in fact, the iPad runs on a kind of ARM chip. Nintendo DS gaming consoles are also based on ARM CPU’s. These are the chips that will power the next generation of tablets, and these will run Windows RT.

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Now you might be asking yourself whether software is compatible between the two systems, and that’s where things start to get difficult. That’s where Metro comes into play.


Metro is the new graphical interface that defines the Windows 8 experience. All versions of Windows 8, and Windows RT, will have Metro at their core. Apps made specifically for Metro will be able to run on any Windows 8 or Windows RT device, regardless of the hardware or chipset being used. Microsoft can do this because they’ve created a new set of programming APIs – the so called Common Language Runtime (CLR), which gives programmers access to the same set of system functions regardless of the precise hardware details. You write a Metro app, and it can run on ARM or x86 hardware – simple as that.

However, this doesn’t apply to any of your existing software. In time, a lot of it will be made available as a “Metro version”, but the software you have right now – all of it – is made such that it will only run on x86 hardware – your traditional PC. This software will therefore not be able to run on Windows RT. It will be compatible with Windows 8, so you’ll be able to continue using it if you upgrade your PC. But if you purchase a tablet that has Windows RT – despite the Metro interface looking identical on both devices – your existing software will not run.

If that was confusing, let’s summarise – Windows RT will not run your existing software. Windows 8 will.

The “Desktop”

Both Windows 8 and Windows RT have a Desktop mode.

Many people who have installed the Windows 8 preview are under the impression that the Metro interface is just an added layer on top of the existing regular Windows ‘desktop’, but this isn’t true. It’s more accurate to think of Desktop mode as just another Metro app, which you can use to browse the filesystem. So there will be a Desktop on both Windows 8 or RT.

In Windows 8 however, the Desktop mode ‘app’ is also used to run your existing (legacy) software. It provides the same functionality your Windows 7 or XP desktop had.

In Windows RT, you can only use the desktop to browse your files.

There is one exception to this I believe. If a Metro app wants to run on the desktop, so long as it has been programmed for Metro, it can run on the desktop on any device.

What About Office? Internet Explorer?

What would Windows be without Office? Here’s the deal – your copy of Office that you have now won’t run on Windows RT, because its a traditional x86 bit of software and we just established that legacy software won’t run. However, Microsoft is making a special version of Office that will run on RT, and they have confirmed that it will be pre-installed on at least the Microsoft branded Surface for Windows RT tablet. This cannot be guaranteed for other Windows RT tablets or devices, but at least the Surface does include it.

Internet Explorer is a contentious issue here though. On Windows 8, you can run whichever browser you like, whether that’s a Metro-optimized Internet Explorer, existing Firefox in desktop mode, or even a new Metro version of Firefox. You can install any browser you like , just as you always have been able to. On Windows RT though, Internet Explorer is all you’re getting. You cannot install a replacement browser on Windows RT.

This may change in time though; remember that Apple did a similar thing with Safari on iOS, and that’s now been opened up. This move may even be forced quicker than we expect thanks to anti-trust lawsuits; but for now, that’s the way it is.

Secure Boot

Windows 8 machines now include the option of running in secure boot mode. This prevents malicious boot code from running before the core Windows system has kicked in, and it also prevents you from installing Linux. We talked about this a while ago, but it’s up to the PC manufacturer to determine if secure boot can be disabled by the user; though we expect most manufacturers to enable secure boot by default, yet still allow the user to disable it, similar to how you might adjust BIOS settings now.

However, Windows RT systems don’t have this option. Secure boot cannot be disabled, so you cannot install a non-authorised operating system. This is much the same as an iPad, where you can only run iOS. Having said that, I thoroughly expect this secure boot method to be hacked within a few days of the first Windows RT tablets being released, but no guarantees. Put simply then, Windows RT devices will only run Windows RT.

I hope this has given a better overview of the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8. It’s probably just easiest if you think of Windows RT devices as being locked down like an iPad, unable to run your existing software and stuck with Internet Explorer as a browser. Windows 8 though – whatever your feelings on the Metro interface – can at least run all your existing software and be customized however you want.

Knowing all this, would you even consider buying a Windows RT tablet device, or will you be waiting for “proper” Windows 8 tablets?

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34 Comments - Write a Comment



Why buy the tablet if you want to change the software? Just buy a cheaper tablet then to install linux on.


Well, we don’t technically know the actual pricing for RT tablets yet…


They said it will be “competitively priced” which probably means iPad price. Unless it is cheap Android priced, then just go with the Android and put whatever software you want on it. I am a big fan of Windows, I have Windows 8 installed as my primary OS and I am looking forward to the Microsoft tablet (I might get one but I think give it 6 months, let the kinks and user preferences be sorted out and then purchase) but I fail to see the point in buying a device if your aim is to change the OS. The running on different hardware I expect to be sorted within a few months. only having IE will be sorted fairly quickly as well and metro I am now used to and can operate without any loss of productivity (don’t respond with any comment about this, it works for me, doesn’t have to work for you).


I agree. No point in buying just to change the OS, certainly.

I’d be really interested to know how you stay productive using Metro though – what apps do you use for work? Just a web browser, or Office…?


Paul Li

Is there any way to browse files using the metro interface, on Windows RT? Having the old desktop *just* to browse files seems clunky.

James Bruce

There wont be. Restrictions on metro apps for security means they can’t browse files (other than specific shared locations); and only mcirosoft will be able to make use of desktop mode on RT.


Alex Downs

Now the real question is, will Windows every officially say what RT stands for? lol



RT stands for Runtime.


Rick Zecerra

Will users be able to put up the old style user interface (Legacy Windows Desktop) or are users stuck with the new UI?

James Bruce

There are hacks to show the desktop on boot, but they are only that – hacks. Metro still runs at the core of everything, will have countless file associations, and will attempt to pop into your life whenever possible. It’s a case of learning to love it.


Gerwell Taroma

what the heck??
rt should be a very risky decision for microsoft..however,there are lots of people out there eager to kick rt’s butt and make it available to what it’s lacking


Laga Mahesa

I’m curious about what you say regarding W8’s Desktop mode being an app – right now, that’s exactly what it is in current and previous versions of Windows. Explorer running in shell mode IS the desktop. This is why things went pear shaped when Internet Explorer first got integrated back in Windows 98.

So is Metro now the primary shell, with Explorer still there as an optional secondary, or, as you indicate, is the Desktop an app running ON METRO?

At 16-20Gb install size, factoring in the short development time and backwards compatibility, I’m inclined to believe the former. This CIL thing sounds like .NET v5 with a tarp thrown over it.

James Bruce

I’m not 100% certain on the desktop mode; but microsoft has made it clear that you absolutely cannot use *only* desktop mode – it is a layer *on top of* Metro, but whether that means its running as an app or as a separate shell is debatable.

Metro is .Net for certain though.

Laga Mahesa

Hmmmm. My old hardcore 98lite/litexp nerves are jangling.

NO! I’ll stay away. ;)



I will be waiting for proper Windows 8 tablets.


Susendeep Dutta

Good and much needed article.It’s better to wait for a proper Windows 8 tablet rather than buying RT one.


Bob Henson

Your article males it clear that Metro is an integral part of Windows. This is important, because it makes it even more likely that Windows 8 will be a huge mistake. Metro may appeal ( I doubt it, actually) to the users of toy computers like fondleslabs. In my opinion, if, as you say, Metro cannot be removed to leave a usable interface for real computing, there will be no uptake of Windows 8 amongst enterprise customers at all. They will hang on to Windows 7 as long as possible and unless a “serious” Windows 9 appears, may consider a move to other operating systems such as Linux. There is a precedent for it – businesses hung on to XP when the ill-fated Vista appeared and are only now switching to Windows 7 – and the even more useless Windows 8 will be similarly by-passed.

Can Microsoft afford to abandon all it’s enterprise customers? I think not; in which case Windows 9 (or a much modified Windows 8) will have to be rushed through with all speed.


Agreed. Enterprises will not have the bandwidth to handle the volume of calls from users who are trying to figure out how to navigate Metro. Win 7 works just fine and is likely step for the millions of XP users who are still waiting to upgrade.

There just is no compelling event to get the large Enterprise to shift enmass. BYODs make wreak havoc for IT but that just means sending out to all the users that Win 8 is not supported and you are on your own until further notice. BYOD-call phone is one thing. BYOD-computer hooked to the network is another.

Win 8 may help MS sell more phones but I do not see the shift in desktops. HP tab-lap may work if Win 7 can be loaded to it.


druv vb

I’ll be moving to Windows 8 on my main PC, once I’ve used it on a different PC.
Am the type of guy who deals with the removal of bloatware from consumer PCs who don’t even bother installing an antivirus on their system.

Windows RT seems inappropriate for me or for recommendations, because the Surface is nothing more than a tablet running a locked OS (WinRT).
I’ll be getting a cheap android tablet that can be modified the way I want, be it software or hardware.

Win8 Pro for Surface is the real deal, but am still skeptical about getting Windows OS on new hardware. Windows OS always had problems adapting with new hardware, and now loading it on a tablet will bring more trouble when the device crashes / hangs / BSOD…

So till then I’ll wait….


Sushil Kathpalia

it looking good….
if i get a chance then i will buy PRO version….


David Tuff

Running Win7 and Win8 dual boot. When booted into Win8, added “My Documents” to point to my docs in Win7. Works fine. Booted into Win7, ALL file attributes are now srewed up in “My Documents”. Every folder I try to access says I don’t have access to them, I then click the security message to allow access, which then gives me access. It means any apps in Win7 that needs to access files in My Documents no longer work until you go to those files or folders and reassign the rights. Even file in the root of My Documents are not accessable in Win7 until the rights are restored..



Great Explination, thank a lot. Very clear and to the point. A request for some tips how to navigate the Metro Interface for users reluctant to change from traditional Windows Desktop environment? Basically, tips how to survive without the “Start” button? Thanks.

James Bruce

I think someone else on the team will be more qualified to take that tip once Win8 is actually released; personally, I’ve had it with Windows. My homeserver died last night, and I havent had a reason to touch my windows desktop in months; Xbox360 or an Apple TV is far more accomplished media center right now, and I’d rather have a dedicated NAS for file storage. Windows 8 is the final nail in the coffin of Windows for me; I’ll make sure my family doesn’t upgrade either, as I don’t want to be dealing with the tech support fallout from that…


Yudono Ra

I think i will stick to my Win 7 for a while



that is not true because i have a touchsmart 2011 note book and windows 8 beta will not install at all it said it did not have the hardware in the notebook but microsoft said that was not right because i had what it took to run windows 8 beta so you Sir can not say that windows 8 beta and it will not run on all of my 2011 and 2012 computers and notebook i have 3 desktops and 3 notebooks so you can not say that it runs on most computers



if Windows 9 continue to be this horrible,I’ll never use Windows anymore after Windows 7


Shawn Ashree Baba

I am super excited for Windows 8.

Eric Notar

Windows 8 is the best OS ever and with surface Microsoft is going to make Apple disapear.
Maybe Android will survive

James Bruce

That’s the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in years. Were you trying to be sarcastic?



I was looking at getting the Lenovo Yoga 11, only available with Win RT, for my uni-work…I currently have an old Dell Latitude D600 running Win7 and Open Office. My question is, not having any computer understanding;

Could I get my existing files onto the Levovo Yoga with Win RT or is there no way of transfering and running those programmes? meaning i’d have to re write all the work

James Bruce

Good question; transferring *files* is very easy using USB, skydrive, or network. However, you’ll only be able to open them if they’re for office, of viewable by a metro app. You cannot install regular pc apps – like Matlab, or other niche software. So it depends on what exactly your files are I guess.

Open office documents won’t work unless MS Office can import them, which I’m afraid I haven’t tried.



I’m a uni student thinkng of buying the Lenovo Yoga 11 which currently only runs Windows RT…I have a LOT of work on my currently Win7 laptop…

Could I transfer all my documents and work onto the Lenovo and continue to work on those documents…or would I have to do all the work and downloand all my iTunes music and pictures onto it?

James Bruce

iTunes does not work on Windows RT – you are stuck with Windows 8 Music and Video apps.


Julie Wighard

Why would they even make this unit? what is their major malfunction? Why would they limit everyone to just these remote programs? I should have bought a leap pad it limits me the same. I bought one and I am disappointed and disgusted. I will take the loss and buy a new one that works like every other normal tablet and pc. Thanks Microsoft for another let down, waste of my money, and waste of time. My fault to think this tablet was normal like the rest, who would have thought microsoft would have built such a piece of equipment that did not work with anything else on the planet without special everything and only certain programs that noone wants to use…??? ugggg…

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