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.

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.

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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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Comments (34)
  • 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…

  • Jordan

    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.

  • Jordan

    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.

  • 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?

  • Terafall

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

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.