Meet Windows RT

Microsoft’s first serious foray into tablets came just after the turn of the new millenium, with Bill Gates demonstrating the first tablet PC prototype onstage at Comdex in the autumn of 2000. From there, OEMs started releasing tablets based on Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2002, with a full range of pen-enabled slates and convertibles releasing over the next few years. In addition to oftentimes prohibitive cost, each had its own set of drawbacks. Convertibles tended to be quite bulky compared to their notebook counterparts (the ThinkPad X-series being a notable exception), while slates were rather difficult to use - a symptom of shoehorning a desktop operating system into a purely touch-centric form factor. 

Fast forward a decade, to the beginning of 2010. After a number of conceptual non-starters in the tablet PC space - building tablet PC support into all editions of Windows Vista and 7 (other than Basic/Home Starter), the entire Origami class of devices - Microsoft’s touchscreen devices were floundering. The iPad had been announced to mixed reaction but an extremely high level of anticipation. Microsoft and HP countered with the Slate 500, an Atom-based device shown off at CES 2010 with solid state storage and Windows 7 in roughly the same form factor as Apple’s iPhone OS-based ARM tablet. With speculation pointing to a pricetag of just $549, the Slate appeared to be the most viable hope Microsoft had in trying to make mainstream headway with the tablet PC concept. But shortly after the iPad shipped in April 2010, rumors of the Slate’s demise started to circulate, and after a six month delay, the Slate 500 started shipping as an enterprise-only product in December of that year for $799. HP’s acquisition of Palm (RIP) definitely played a role in the sidelining of the Slate, but more importantly, it essentially spelled the end for the tablet PC. This was news that was perhaps known already, but the Slate saga officially pulled the plug on Microsoft’s original idea of what a tablet was. 

The problem was two parts software, one part hardware. Microsoft had developed a very interesting touch-oriented user interface for its handhelds, so at least one part of the equation was relatively straightforward. The hardware issue came down to this: the iOS and Android tablets succeeding in the market ran off ARM system-on-chips, which resulted in slim, power-efficient tablets that had idle times stretching for days. At the time, there was just nothing in terms of x86 hardware that could compete with that in low-power device realm (Clover Trail and Haswell, of course, change this part of the story considerably). The other question? How to converge the touch-centric UI with the classic desktop environment that had been the corner of Windows dating all the way back to 95. 

Meet Windows RT. It’s Microsoft’s first major foray into the modern tablet market, the shipping version of Windows-on-ARM, and it’s one of Microsoft’s most important product launches ever. Windows 8 shares the same touch-friendly user interface, but the ARM silicon makes RT an almost entirely tablet-centric operating system, the first for Microsoft. Combined with the focus on premium hardware experiences, this is Redmond’s most serious push to be competitive with the iOS and Androids of the world. How does it fare? Keep reading.

User Interface, Gestures, and Multitasking
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  • MadMan007 - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    I forgot about the base 10 versus base 2 conversion, which affects every single device of any kind out there (no one headline advertises base 2 sizes), but that still leaves over 4GB 'missing' even before the OS install. 4GB is a lot of non-video media or space for apps (I imagine app size is comarable to other ARM OSes because of Windows Phone.)

    Perhaps that's why we're seeing such memory sizes and pricing for Windows tablets, to make them comparable to other OSes, but companies can put flash for the same price in other tablets as well. Maybe they will and just enjoy better margins, or maybe they will and just price them lower.
  • daboochmeister - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    One of the things that's held me back from buying an Xbox is that it's $5/month to be a member of their community, so that you can chat with friends, have trophies saved, play multiplayer games, etc. As opposed to free with the Playstation Network, for example.

    Is there any kind of implicit tax like that in order to use this as a gaming device? If you don't have an Xbox and don't join any such paywall-portal, do you lose access to any games, or capability within any games you do have?
  • mcnabney - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    You will never install anything on RT that is not Microsoft approved and they will get a cut of the money too. Unsigned apps cannot be installed on RT - and only apps sold specifically to YOU on the MS App store are signed.

    But no, there won't be a monthly fee just to have a Surface tablet. The apps you want to run might...
  • Visual - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Uh... "you can chat with friends, have trophies saved" even without Xbox Live Gold. In other words, it is free. You only need to pay to play in multiplayer.
  • aepxc - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    The review seems to indicate that Windows RT is an OS for desktop computing, but with a touch layer. But what does touch add to desktop computing? In what situations would a Windows RT tablet be preferable to a Windows 7 ultrabook? Or is it just a question of a Windows RT device being cheaper (especially taking into account the bundled Office) by much more than it is worse?
  • VivekGowri - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    No? It's an OS for touch computing, with the traditional desktop layer underneath. I tried to spell that out as clearly as possible in the conclusion.
  • aepxc - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    That's the argument that I did not really understand. To me, the clearest distinction between computing pre-Android/iOS and the computing those OSs have now enabled, lies not in how you do things (with gestures and touch) but in what you do. I used "desktop computing" in my initial post in the sense of activities one would do at a desk, to the exclusion of the outside environment. Android and iOS ('mobile', 'post-PC', whatever) seem to me to instead focus on tasks that augment one's environment. Google Now or the iPad's use as a flight bag, or Kindle's textbooks (or even messaging services that are more SMS than IRC in spirit) would, to me, be emblematic of the new approach.

    What you praise WinRT for -- multitasking, (computer-centric) productivity, etc. would to me be very 'desktop' (again, in the sense above) centred. Given that, they are already very well (IMHO, better) served by Win7. Hence my original question -- what does touch (especially at the expense of lower power and a smaller screen) bring to the game? What does it do better than an ultrabook?
  • ludikraut - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Having used the Windows 8 beta on an Asus EP121 tablet, I can attest to what Vivek is saying. To me Windows 8 (any version) on a tablet, at a minimum, extends the capability of what we might call the 'traditional' tablet (e.g., iPad, Andriod) by allowing me to use it effectively for productivity apps like Office. Trying to write long e-mails, online posts, word docs, etc. on an iPad, for example, is an exercise in extreme frustration to me. No such issue on Win8.
    So to me Windows RT offers an expanded tablet experience, if you will, and full-blown Windows 8 on a powerful tablet allows me to ditch all of my other tablets and notebooks in favor of a single device. A Haswell version of something like the Asus Transformer Book is what I'll be waiting for.

  • steven75 - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    "Trying to write long e-mails, online posts, word docs, etc. on an iPad, for example, is an exercise in extreme frustration to me."

    And why are the same not any issue on Windows RT? Because you connected a hardware keyboard?

    Then why not do the same with an iPad?
  • karasaj - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Well for starters (imo), battery life and portability. Find a 600$ ultrabook constructed as well as surface. You won't. Many people have given it the same quality as Apple's products.

    You can't compare things one to one and expect something reasonable. In a world where surface and ultrabooks are the only things that exist, and specs are all that matters, yes, ultrabooks come out on top.

    Look at the ipad though. Sure, it has apps. But x86 has WAY more. x86 is WAY more powerful. But more people buy the iPad than many windows computers. Tablets (despite being low power) are cannibalizing the PC market. Why is this?

    All day battery life, family friendly media consumption, etc. Sure, an ultrabook does all of this - so why doesn't it sell as well? Tablets have a certain appeal - being able to sit in bed and lay on your side and watch netflix without worrying about a keyboard for example. Having 10+ hours of battery life while internet browsing (many notebooks, even ultrabooks, achieve half that).

    Now look at Surface. Don't compare it JUST to an ultrabook. Do both. It's bringing a level of productivity to tablets that never existed. I (as a student) can take Surface and take notes with it in class on Office, and watch movies in bed with it. Tablet's have an appeal because they excel at their tasks - media consumption and (now) basic productivity. You don't *need* more power for those things. If you have more complex needs, then of course you need a laptop.

    But if all you do is Netflix, office, and the occasional game, + internet browsing, (me), there's no difference. Surface can do all that and be more or less just as smooth. Applications might take longer to load, but that's a one time thing that can even be improved with software optimization. I have a desktop for more powerful needs (gaming, programming).

    PCs have always been more powerful, but their sales are declining. That's because the average consumer (a media consumer, not a power user) puts more emphasis on portability than having a quad core i7 - they don't need that much power.

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