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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  • tipoo - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    I'd like to know that as well. But if it kills even my Core 2 Duo, I don't expect current ARM chips to fare well with that many tabs, but I'd still like to know how it handles background tab loading.
  • Mahadragon - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Thanks Anand for the best review of RT I've seen yet. Gives me better idea of what's to come, however it doesn't address the question should I buy Win8 for desktop? The upgrade offer ($40) is out now but I don't seen compelling reason to buy it. You mentioned in your review that Apple has their desktop computer and mobile offerings separate, but the way Win8 is being implemented it sounds like maybe they should have kept it that way.

    In your review you said it was jarring how it would revert back to the desktop environment when you touched on a desktop app. It's comments like this that make me wonder why upgrade from Win 7? Are the apps that will eventually come to the desktop be all that useful? I suppose if there were a handy Calendar App that could auto-sync with my mobile device that would be nice, but there are already many apps (like Google Calendar) that I can already use to sync between mobile devices.

    Your review has given a great many reasons to purchase a Surface tablet, but that's not the decision many of us are facing right now. $500 is not chump change and that doesn't even include the keyboard which is another $100. I just bought a new iPod Touch and will be using that for mobile computing since my Windows Phone 7 device is not nearly as user friendly.

    I think MSFT could have kept Win8 same as Win7 with an option to run ARM apps built-in. I think this would have made more sense since they don't have too many apps to begin with. Also, I don't think these little apps, which are optimized for tablet, will necessarily give a great experience on a desktop monitor that you won't be touching.

    It almost seems like MSFT is trying to encourage people to buy the tablet by frustrating them with a rough desktop experience and making it smooth on the Surface. Thank you for going over the history of MSFT's initial forays into the tablet space. It's something very few people realize. Yes, MSFT, always the innovator was the first to come out with a tablet over 10 years ago, but nobody even knew about it.

    Fortunately for MSFT, there is a god (or rather, Apple) who has always been there to show them the light. Apple: "Use a touchscreen, not a stylus!" MSFT: "Ok, sorry, we thought everyone would cherish the thought of using a digital pen to interact with their tablets. Apple: "Make an App Store and sell software programs through it so people can add functionality to their devices!" MSFT: "Ok, that's a great idea, wish we thought of that." Apple: "Add a camera! People like to take photos." MSFT: "Done." Apple: "Come out with your own retail stores so you can sell to people directly!" MSFT: "Ok, we can do that." Apple: "Always remember to copy us verbatim but not too much. We don't want to have to sue you (again)." MSFT: "Ok, we'll make our products geeky instead of dead sexy how about that?"
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    If you're already using Windows 7, chances are pretty good that you'd just be wasting money.

    Windows 8 obviously was made for mobile devices. Then perhaps it will perform somewhat faster on the same hardware. But if you're looking for better gaming performance you probably will not see much of a difference there.

    The app store is a terrible idea in its current incarnation. I do not know many ( any ) software developers who would be happy about paying a 30% forced fee for any software platform. These same developers who draw users en mass to an operating system by creating many, useful applications. Or, I should say *did*.
  • Dorek - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    "Apple: "Add a camera! People like to take photos.""

    Uh, the Surface doesn't have a rear camera. Rear cameras on tablets are freaking stupid.

    Anyway, if you care about such things, Windows 8 has much faster performance than Windows 7. Well worth $40 bucks to me.
  • shermanx - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    where's the Wacom digitizer/pen/stylus? while so many tablets are trying to be different from others, I am surprised how few have included a functional pen for taking notes. that is really important feature for education business, and there's nothing that's really working well now. I just need Wacom Bamboo level of experience with a screen on it at a reasonable price.
  • darkcrayon - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    There will be a digitizer on the Surface Pro, though I think the pro will be even more of a different market than the RT, considering it will be even larger and heavier.
  • yyrkoon - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    "The only applications that are allowed to run in desktop mode under Windows RT are Explorer, IE10, Office 2013 and the command prompt "

    This will either make or break Windows RT. Also, I bet this is a form of DRM imposed by Microsoft. While not DRM per se, they get to say which application we can install on our systems. Good, or bad ? I really do not know. It really depends on how they implement their online store. As I have not used windows 8, or Win RT. However, if it is similar to the google app store. Developers are required to pay an annual $25 USD fee. Which if you ask me, is slightly detrimental to the given community. In that people will be more inclined to charge for their applications, instead of providing FOSS( free open source software ). $25 USD though, really is not all that much.

    One thing I can say however. Is that Microsoft sure is pushing their latest mobile software development kits through their mailing lists. Good or bad ? Again, I do not know. I am currently with android development, and unless I see something inspirational from Microsoft. That will likely not change soon. If ever. That is, for mobile devices. On the desktop I still prefer to develop with / on Windows using the .NET base class library.
  • yyrkoon - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Also Anand,

    I really do not think third party apps will be a problem. At least where the browser applications are concerned. With all the javascript libraries that abound now days, coupled with HTML5 and CSS3. "Offline webapps" will be easy to make, and provide a lot of possibilities. These apps, should work the same on any OS.

    Native apps . . .is where Microsoft excels on the desktop At least from a developers standpoint. The .NET base class library takes a lot of work out of software development, and provides many, many useful classes. How this works, or will work cross platform from x86 to ARM I am not exactly sure. But I suspect Microsoft has it covered. As always. Having done a lot of research lately on mobile device development, I know that Microsoft is providing a lot of software development kits. Some that look extremely attractive at first look.

    From a software developers standpoint. Windows 8 / Windows RT looks really attractive right now. Since the market is virtually wide open for software developers to make themselves a name.

    Now do keep in mind that everything mentioned above is from a developers mindset. As a user . . . yours truly really likes to keep as much freedom as possible. How that works out again is based on how Microsoft implements their app store. Also, if Microsoft can somehow remove the mobile device from the stigma of being a toy. I think they'll have it nailed. We know the OS polish is going to be there for anything Windows lately. So it basically boils down to ( again ) good software availability.
  • yyrkoon - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    Yeah, disregard what I said above.

    According to what I have just read. Microsoft wants a 30% fee for using their app store. From the developer . . . so yeah Microsoft can kiss my ass as far as Windows RT is concerned.

    If they keep on like this, personally I do not care how much work the .NET framework saves me. I will move to another platform and write off their operating systems al together. And I know im not alone.
  • ~joe - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    I have one question to anybody owning Windows RT device (particualry Surface). I'm writting from Poland, and so far there is no plans for selling this device here. So I want to buy my in USA. My intention of use is 70% content consumption and 30% content creation using Office. But I need for my work Polish language. The question is - can I switch language to Polish (or ownload Polish language pack)?

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