How to Jailbreak Your Windows RT Device and Run Unapproved Desktop Software

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Windows RT is the locked-down version of Windows 8 for ARM computers, as seen on Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet and a few other Windows RT devices. Unlike the standard version of Windows 8, Windows RT doesn’t allow you to install your own desktop programs. You’re limited to the included desktop programs written by Microsoft or Modern apps from the Windows Store. However, there are ways to jailbreak your Windows RT device and run unapproved software on the desktop.

These tricks aren’t for the faint of heart. They’re for the geeks out there who have a Surface lying around and want to hack around with it, making it do more than what it was designed to do.

Microsoft-Approved Desktop Apps

Windows RT includes most of the standard Windows desktop programs that come with Windows. You can use Internet Explorer, File Explorer, Remote Desktop, Notepad, Paint, and other tools — but there’s no Windows Media Player. Windows RT also comes bundled with desktop versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. In Windows RT 8.1, you’ll also be able to use the popular Outlook mail client on the desktop. These Office apps are limited versions, without support for macros and plug-ins.

If you want to run another desktop program, tough luck — you can only run desktop programs specifically written by Microsoft. To get a new desktop program, users will have to ask Microsoft nicely — just as they asked for Outlook or Windows RT and will be receiving it soon. On a Windows RT device, you’ll need to install Modern apps from the Windows Store instead of desktop apps from the web. However, intrepid hackers — in the good sense of the word — have been hacking away at Microsoft’s limitations.

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Jailbreaking a Surface RT or Other Windows RT Device

Like an iPad, a Surface RT or other Windows RT device can be jailbroken. This removes the protection against running any desktop program not specifically written by Microsoft.

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Note that jailbreaking your Windows RT device won’t allow you to run any Windows desktop program. Windows RT devices run on ARM chips, while standard Windows PCs use Intel x86 chips — that means you can’t just run standard Windows software on an ARM device, even after jailbreaking it. We’ll cover the software you can run later.

Jailbreaking was once a bit more complicated, requiring you to run a special hack every time you booted your device. There’s now a dedicated RT Jailbreak Tool that can automatically run at startup, jailbreaking your Windows RT device every time it boots. To jailbreak your Windows RT device, just follow the instructions in the thread — download the .zip file, extract it, and double-click the runExploit.bat file.

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Running Apps Compiled for Windows RT

After jailbreaking, you can immediately run apps that have been specifically tweaked and compiled for Windows RT’s ARM architecture. As many popular tools are open-source, this means that you can run some popular desktop programs, including BitTorrent clients, text editors, VNC programs, older games, and other tools. Consult the Desktop apps ported to Windows RT thread on the XDA developers forum for a maintained list of desktop programs you can run. You’ll find common tools like 7-Zip, Notepad++, PuTTY, TightVNC, Keepass, Miranda IM, and Audacity in addition to game engines and emulators that can run old SNES and DOS games.

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Running Standard Windows x86 Software

One enterprising developer has created a tool named Win86emu that functions as an emulation layer, enabling standard x86 Windows desktop programs to run on Windows RT ARM tablets. It’s still in beta, so don’t expect to work with too many programs. There’s also a thread that lists compatible apps — you can use IrfanView, WinRAR, and the Windows 95 version of Pinball decently, but other programs will be too slow. Fallout 2, Might and Magic VI, Heroes of Might and Magic III, and Age of Empires 1 work okay, too.

This is certainly a start, and if you need to use IrfanView, WinRAR, or play a few old games, this could be useful. This tool would likely improve with time if Windows RT became more popular, but it’s unclear if that would ever happen — so don’t hold onto your hats.

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Should You Jailbreak Your Windows RT Device?

Microsoft says the limited desktop makes Windows RT devices more secure — no unapproved desktop programs means no viruses. After a jailbreak, a Windows RT device will behave more like a standard Windows 8 device, so security shouldn’t be an issue. Performance and battery life might be an issue — desktop programs running in the background might be a drain in the CPU as they can’t be managed by the system in the same way Modern apps are — but this will be no more of a problem than on standard Windows 8 systems.

In reality, it seems more like Windows RT has a desktop because Microsoft couldn’t port Office to the Modern environment fast enough and they couldn’t get all of the important settings into the Modern PC Settings app. We wouldn’t be surprised to see the crippled desktop fully removed from Windows RT within a few versions.

The bigger concern is the actual usefulness of these tweaks. If you already have a Surface RT and want to do something a bit extra with it, these tricks can be useful. However, you won’t be able to do more than run a few small desktop apps. Developers won’t compile their apps specifically for Windows RT, so you’re relying on enthusiasts to get them working for you.

If you want a touch-based Windows device, pick up one that uses Windows 8 on a standard x86 chip. With devices running Intel’s Atom chip offering similar performance and price to ARM devices as well as compatibility with traditional Windows desktop software, there’s no real reason to purchase a Windows RT device. You should go with a Windows 8 device instead of a Windows RT device if you want to run desktop programs.

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Have you jailbroken your Surface or other Windows RT device? How have the third-party desktop apps worked for you? Leave a comment and share your experiences!

Image Credit: John Bristowe on Flickr

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