Cheat sheet: Windows 8 vs. Windows RT

At first glance, the two new Microsoft operating systems look to be the same, but they're actually quite different

To the naked eye, Windows RT looks just like Windows 8. But it's not. There are huge differences that could cause a lot of confusion for the people who buy Microsoft's Surface tablet that's launching tomorrow. Most people have no clue what Windows RT is, and that's Microsoft's fault for not making it clearer. Let's take a look at what we do know.

Microsoft is launching its new, highly anticipated operating system, Windows 8, to the world tomorrow. Also tomorrow, it will release its first tablet -- one running Windows RT, not Windows 8. (The Surface with Windows 8 is coming three months later.) Confusing, right?

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Well, even Microsoft Store reps seems to be confused, according to the Verge. When writer Sean Hollister asked eight representatives about the difference between Windows 8 and RT, half of the responses were pretty unhelpful, if not downright wrong. One rep said, "They're pretty much the same thing; there is no real huge difference beside the fact that the RT is more touch-friendly." Now Microsoft says that it is training its reps on the differences between the two operating systems.

Windows expert Paul Thurrott points out this glaring problem too, noting that he's received hundreds of emails with questions that indicate people are confused about Windows RT and Windows 8.

Microsoft does have a section called "Help Me Choose" on its Surface website that outlines key differences, but I believe the biggest one is buried beneath the two bullet lists, and its language is confusing.

Microsoft says: "Although you can install apps directly from the Windows Store, you can't install apps on the Desktop on Windows RT." What Microsoft means to say is: Windows RT will not run any Desktop applications other than the ones bundled with it. Desktop -- or legacy -- applications like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Outlook won't run on Windows RT. You can't install programs on Windows RT other than the tablet-optimized apps found in the Windows Store -- those full-screen, tile-based apps using what Microsoft used to call the Metro UI.

Windows RT does come bundled with Office Home & Student 2013 RT, but it doesn't include Outlook. Other features not included in Windows RT are Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, and domain joining (which kind of kills it for enterprise users).

Because of this, you should think of Windows RT as the tablet, stripped-down version of the Metro portion of Windows 8. Windows RT tablets are more like the iPad -- mobile devices, rather than the full-fledged computers they look like. By contrast, Windows 8 essentially is two operating systems in one: the new Metro part that Windows RT also has and the Desktop part that is essentially a version of Windows 7. The Desktop in Windows RT isn't the full Desktop environment, but just enough of it to run the preinstalled Office RT and Internet Explorer 10 RT.

For more details on Windows RT vs. Windows 8, see Paul Thurrott's article on how to choose between them or my basic writeup of the difference between the two Surface tablets.

Windows 8 tablets and laptops will be more capable, but they'll also be more expensive. The Surface with Windows RT is competitively priced at $499 for the 32GB model, and it might be more energy-efficient because it is powered by an Nvidia ARM processor rather than an Intel processor. So you might still want Windows RT -- as long as you know what you're in for.

This story, "Cheat sheet: Windows 8 vs. Windows RT" was originally published by ITworld.

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