As with Windows 8, Windows RT offers more than just its charming approach to search and socialization. For one thing, it offers some cool log-in options. You can choose to create a local account, but the OS becomes infinitely more useful when you use a Microsoft account. You'll be able to synchronize Windows settings, including Internet Explorer 10 history and preferences. This means that when you log in to any other Windows 8 machine with that account, your data will sync, including pinned sites, background settings, address book, and other accounts like Facebook and Twitter, e-mail, and instant messaging. App syncing is done through the Windows Store, while the 7GB of free SkyDrive storage and integration with the SkyDrive app can be used to sync personal files.
Beyond sync, once you've logged on for the first time you can change your log-in to a personal identification number or. The picture log-in is neat, and lets you set a photo as your log-in background. You can then customize a quick series of drawings on the picture, made up of a line, a circle, and a dot, to log you in. It ought to provide a much faster log-in process for tablets than a PIN. Sadly, the picture password doesn't sync.
If you're on the lock screen, you click and drag it up to reveal the password dialog. It may sound like a lot that's different from the touch workflow, but it's actually quite simple. You can even use the mouse for your picture log-in.
One of Windows 7's better interface features was a split-screen view that you could initiate just by dragging one program's Title Bar to the left or right side of the screen. This has been updated for Windows 8 and RT when you drag an app from the left edge. Once the split bar appears, release the app and it will "snap" to the edge. The screen will be split, with one-third for the app you just dragged over, and two-thirds for the previous app. The benefits to multitasking in multiple apps are readily apparent.
IE10 is the most standards-compliant versions of Internet Explorer yet, as well as recognized by several sources as extremely good at blocking malware and phishing. This is not the Swiss cheese disaster that previous versions of Internet Explorer have been, but many people won't be comfortable with a Microsoft operating system that doesn't support choice. Why Microsoft wants to revisit that decade-old battle is a bit baffling.
Also frustrating is that Flash does work in IE10, but only on pre-approved Web sites. It's an understandable security precaution, but it's not particularly reflective of how people actually use the Web.
Although there's no such thing as a foolproof security system, these features greatly reduce the parts of Windows that are vulnerable. There's the Trusted Boot for double-checking system integrity before Windows loads, and the SmartScreen in IE10 to protect you from phishing and malware. This is the first version of Windows with dedicated parental control features, called FamilySafety.
Meanwhile, in the PC Settings, you can now handle poorly performing machines with the Refresh option, for reinstalling the OS without affecting your personal settings and files; or Remove everything and reinstall a fresh version of Windows without having to use any external installation discs. These negate one of the biggest complaints about Windows over time: that the operating system performance degrades and reinstalling is an unmitigated, painful hassle.
The Desktop app situation is bizarre. First-class Microsoft apps, like the new Office, open into Desktop mode. You've also got File Explorer for browsing through your file tree in a more traditional Windows manner, and that Desktop mode version of IE10. It all works well and fine, but it's beyond disconcerting to have to flip back and forth between the different interface aesthetics. Legacy programs like Outlook and Windows Media Player are not welcome in Windows RT.
One last problem that will only be solved with time is that Windows RT, and Windows 8, are hamstrung by a lack of apps. Windows 8 can get around this problem with its legacy support for older Windows programs, but Windows RT is left in the cold.
If you like the idea of a version of Windows heavily divorced from its past, Windows RT takes Windows 8 toward that vision. It just doesn't go far enough, and it suffers for that.
Because Windows RT is based on ARM processors, the x86-based CNET Labs test suite can't be used to benchmark it. However, we can pull together from our experiences on a Surface RT running Windows RT and on Windows 8 to get a reasonable approximation of how it performs.
After spending a few days with Windows RT on the Microsoft Surface RT tablet, it felt fairly snappy to boot, and when transitioning between screens. But that hasn't been everybody's experience, and the CNET review of the Surface RT found its performance uneven, to be charitable. My colleague Eric Franklin noted several problems: slow app loading, lags that required a reboot to fix, and sluggish rendering in 3D games. I also noticed some initial slow behavior when launching an app for the first time.
This is the first time that any version of Windows has ever worked on the lower-power, longer-battery ARM processors that run your smartphones and tablets, and that's worth noting. But it looks toward the far future of Windows -- not what will serve people now.
Windows RT should ditch its Desktop mode completely, and it won't feel like a finished, professional operating system until it does. As a tablet-only OS, its limitations severely dull the glow of Windows 8's innovations. This could very well become the Windows of the future, but as it stands now, it feels incomplete in some areas, and overdone in others. We will revisit Windows RT after more apps go online.
While it avoids the repetitiveness of Android and iOS, and feels connected to your life and the Internet the way that Windows 8 does, its lack of functionality and uneven features make it hard to recommend when comparing it with other tablet operating systems.