Windows RT – What You Can & Can’t Do

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windows rt tablet previewWindows RT edition was discreetly launched about a month and a half ago with the flagship Microsoft Surface RT tablet device. Though visually indistinguishable from Windows 8, there are some key differences as to what you can and can’t do with it. Today I hope to explain those to you in detail.

I also did a full review of the Surface RT device, and the rest of the MakeUseOf writers have weighed in on Windows 8 in general.

Desktop Mode

Contrary to popular belief, Windows RT does have a “desktop mode”, just like your regular PC, and at the same time not at all like it. Confused? You should be. The desktop mode allows you to access:

  • Control Panel
  • My Computer, Documents folder and Libraries
  • Internet Explorer 10
  • MS Paint
  • Notepad
  • Office

This is where the familiarity stops, and the desktop can only be used for those apps mentioned above. You cannot “install” your existing Windows apps.

Summary: RT has a desktop mode which runs some basic included apps and gives access to the file manager, but you cannot run other desktop applications.

windows rt tablet preview

Windows Store

The only apps that can be installed on Windows RT are those from the Windows Store. These apps have been specifically compiled to run on both the Surface RT ARM-based chipset, and the regular PC x86 chipsets. Microsoft created a high level language for developers to work in, so the apps can run on both.

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That’s why existing Windows applications – what you or I might think of an .exe (executable) file cannot run on Windows RT.

Summary: Anything you buy in the Windows Store will run on both Windows 8 RT and normal Windows 8. Other software cannot be installed.

Office 2013

Surface RT includes Home and Student edition of Office 13 pre-installed (which is partly why there’s only 16GB of useable free space on a 32GB model). Office runs in desktop mode, but crucially does not include Outlook. Instead, you must use Windows 8’s default Mail, People and Calendar apps. If Outlook is critical, your only option is to use the Outlook web app with Exchange 2013.

windows rt

For Business Users

As well as the lack of Outlook described above, Windows RT does not support Active Directory. If this is a critical requirement for your business, you’ll need to wait for the Surface Pro devices. In addition, the versions of Office apps included with Windows RT are not licensed for business use (“commerical, non profit or revenue generating activites”).

If you wish to use the Office apps in a business environment, you’ll need to purchase separate licensing (such as Office 365). You can access a VPN and use Remote Desktop client, but not act as a RDP host. While Outlook is not available, Exchange Active Sync is supported.

Web Browsers

Currently, your only option for web browsing on Windows RT is with Internet Explorer 10. This can be run either as ModernUI-style when launched from the Start screen, or in desktop mode when launched from the desktop icon. Although there is a version of Google Chrome that works within Metro, it is not available on the Windows Store and therefore not available for Windows RT.

It is possible that other browsers will be allowed into the Windows Store in the future, but Microsoft is making this difficult by preventing access to critical functions that give IE10 the advantage.

Summary: You can use any browser you want, as long as it’s Internet Explorer 10. Also, forget plugins, you can’t have any.

windows rt

Media Options

Windows RT does not include Windows Media Player – the Xbox Music and Video apps are designed to replace this. Window RT also can’t function as a Media Center Extender – so if you have a WMC set up as a DVR somewhere, you’ll need to use a full Windows 8 machine with the additional media components installed, to control it.

Summary: No Media Center functionality, no Windows Media Player. Xbox Music and Video apps only.

windows rt tablet preview

Secure Boot, Other Operating Systems, Storage & Encryption

Both the Surface RT and future Windows RT devices from other manufacturers are locked with Secure Boot that cannot be disabled. This means that just like an iPad, you cannot install a replacement OS like Linux.

The Storage Spaces feature of Windows 8 which combines storage devices into one logical volume is not available on Windows RT. BitLocker functionality is also missing. However, device level encryption is available.

You can also mount ISO and VHD images – though you cannot boot from the VHD like you can in Windows 8 Pro.

Most of the core Windows 8 features – like multiple monitor support / Play To, and enhanced task manager – are present on Windows RT. You have the new Explorer bar, and Windows Defender and SmartScreen to protect you. Multiple languages are supported. Basically, if you’re happy with Windows 8 and only wish to use Windows 8 “Modern UI” applications, Windows RT should suffice to give you the full “Windows 8 experience”.

Is there any you can do on RT than you can’t on a regular desktop or laptop? Well, the chipset is low power, so you can run a lot longer than a typical battery-guzzling laptop. Windows RT is also a lot more secure than Windows 8 (which is pretty secure anyway); the inability to run third party applications make viruses and malware non-existant (currently – but this could change).

Hopefully this makes it crystal clear as to what you can and can’t do; if in doubt, you probably can’t do it on Windows RT. If you have a specific feature in mind that I haven’t mentioned, check out the full feature list from Microsoft or ask below in the comments and I’ll do my best to find out for you.

Be sure to read my full review to know exactly how much of a disaster I personally think the Surface RT tablet is. As exciting as a Windows 8 touch screen device sounds – please, please do yourself a favor and wait for the Surface Pro. Do you think I’ve missed something or spotted a technical inaccuracy? Let me know in the comments!

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13 Comments - Write a Comment


FĂ©lix S. De JesĂşs

I thought that can install at least photoshop, or have an app like photoshop (NOT TOUCH) but well… We can wait.


Efi Dreyshner

Not what I hoped, but will be great to try.


Scott Macmillan

I think after reading this article i will wait for the pro.


Christopher Dsouza

never heard of RT before this. Thanks


Junil Maharjan

windows 8 is a great OS but needs more apps.


Chew Jian Yue

I will try!


Paulo Delgado

RT is 8 without desktop apps and it sucks.


Douglas Mutay

Thank you James. When can we expect the Surface Pro? Any idea?


January, $900.

Douglas Mutay

Thanks. Yes if it’s so close it worth waiting. And I can believe Microsoft is going very soon to release another one just after the Pro. So wondering if we could just wait again and see. There is no rush…


Lisa Santika Onggrid

It does sound like a disaster. Like a toy computer which can only launch stock apps..


John White

It’s RT, it isnt’ suppose to be a replacement or a full OS, it’s a tablet OS -_-, if you want a computer buy a 1,000 PC tablet or a laptop or a desktop…


Jon Procter

urgh RT, I guess it’ll be fine when there are more ModernUI apps… but for now urgh.

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