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How to Choose: Windows 8 vs. Windows RT

With Microsoft finally offering its Surface with Windows RT devices for sale, some readers are having second thoughts after an initial bout of enthusiasm: Is Windows RT right for them, or will its limitations prove problematic? But deciding between Windows 8 and Windows RT doesn’t have to be hard.

As a backgrounder, Windows 8 is of course Microsoft’s new operating system for PCs and devices. The versions that run on traditional, Intel-type, x86-compatible PCs are known as Windows 8 (Core) and Windows 8 Pro. But there’s also a new version that runs on the ARM platform: This is called Windows RT.

Microsoft ported Windows to the ARM architecture for one reason, primarily: The company wanted its flagship product to run well on thin and light tablets and other mobile devices. And while Intel-compatible chipsets provide amazing performance and good battery life on a wide range of device types, only ARM provides them with the ability to compete, point by point, with devices as thin and light and power-efficient as the iPad.

Of course, ARM chipsets are not compatible with Intel-compatible chipsets, so the amazing array of Windows-compatible application software that we all take for granted on the PC side will not run on ARM-based Windows RT devices. (Most new Metro-style apps and games will run identically on both Windows 8 and RT, however.)

Additionally, some Windows 8 features aren’t available on Windows RT. These include individual applications like Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center, as well as features like Storage Spaces and BitLocker. (Windows RT overcomes the latter limitation with its own, unique full-device encryption functionality, however.)

OK. But how do you choose? Perhaps the best way to start is to ask yourself a few simple questions, which are aimed at seeing whether you can remove ARM and Windows RT from the equation.

These are:

Are you upgrading from Windows 7?

If yes, then you cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to upgrade to either Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro instead. Windows RT is only available on new devices. There is no way to purchase just the software.

Do you need compatibility with legacy, desktop-based third-party applications like Photoshop?

If yes, then you cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to pick between the many Intel-compatible Windows 8 PCs and devices.

Do you need to sign-in to an Active Directory-based domain for work purposes?

If yes, then you cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to pick between the many Intel-compatible Windows 8 PCs and devices.

Do you need Windows Media Center, perhaps for a living room-based DVR (digital video recording) solution?

If yes, then you cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to pick between the many Intel-compatible Windows 8 PCs and devices. (In fact, you’ll need to use Windows 8 Pro, as Media Center is not available on Windows 8 Core.)

Those are the four biggest Windows RT blockers. If you still haven’t ruled out Windows RT, the choice now moves to devices. Unfortunately, that’s where things get a bit messy, since there is a wide array of both ARM-based Windows RT devices and x86/x64-based Windows 8 PCs and devices. And there’s a ton of overlap: You’re going to see Windows 8 slate PCs, Windows RT desktop PCs, and a slew of hybrid devices running on both architectures.

I can’t help you pick a device type of course, as that’s a personal decision. But there are a few additional hardware-related notes you should consider when making a purchasing decision.

Connected Standby. Both Windows 8 and RT support a new form of power management called Connected Standby that causes a Windows device to behave much like a smart phone. That is, instead of turning it off, the device will intelligently power down to a nearly powerless state in which battery life is only minimally impacted but Metro-style apps can run in the background, performing tasks like updating email and triggering notifications. So what’s the catch? While Connected Standby works and is available on all Windows RT devices, only Windows 8 devices running the very latest chipsets support this functionality. And today, that means only those PCs and devices based on the Atom “Clover Trail” processor.

Compatibility. While Windows RT is not compatible with any desktop applications that are not preinstalled in the OS, you may be surprised how well it works with hardware peripherals such as printers, mice, keyboards, and even USB-based cellular broadband radios. That’s because both Windows 8 and RT have a new generation of so-called class drivers built in which allow these devices to work immediately. In Windows RT, that means you can connect a Bluetooth or USB keyboard and it will work immediately, no drivers needed. But in Windows 8, a more full-featured driver will likely download in the background, giving you additional functionality.

Media device vs. PC. While Microsoft is positioning Windows 8 and RT at what it now calls “devices,” I think its fairer to say that most Windows RT devices will be just that—devices—and that their primary mission will be more akin to that of a media tablet (i.e. iPad or Android tablet) that a true, full-featured PC. Meanwhile, Windows 8 will mostly be used in devices we would normally think of as PCs, even when they’re tablets, since they offer broader compatibility with traditional PC software and hardware. That said, both systems are in fact hybrid designs. So you can get real work done in RT and play games or listen to music in Windows 8. Still, when I think RT, I think devices/media consumption, and when I think Windows 8, I think PC.

In the coming weeks, many media organizations will offer their reviews of the Microsoft Surface and other Windows RT and Windows 8 devices. I’ll be reviewing some myself, though of course I can’t hope to match the widespread coverage of larger, fully staffed sites. So keep your eyes open and make sure you’ve read up on the products that interest you before buying anything. And do so knowing that the first generation of any product—especially something unproven like Windows RT—is sure to have at least a few issue and potential hiccups. We’re all excited by what’s happening, but there’s no rush: Windows 8 and RT will be with us for years to come and this is just the beginning.

Note: Parts of this article were excerpted and modified from Windows 8 Secrets by Paul Thurrott and Rafael Rivera. Order Windows 8 Secrets today on and save!


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