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Microsoft Windows RT review: Limited and confusing, Microsoft's tablet OS hamstrings its best features

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The Good Windows RT takes Microsoft's operating system to places it's never been before. Running on lower-powered ARM chips and forgoing third-party legacy Windows programs, Windows RT emphasizes much of the best of Windows 8.

The Bad You won't be able to run anything from Windows 7 on Windows RT, and Windows RT tablets have been dogged by performance complaints.

The Bottom Line Windows RT is a strange beast. On the one hand, speed, security, and the best of Windows 8 make RT a pleasure to use. But app restrictions make Windows RT confusing, and the limited availability of apps undercuts the operating system's usefulness.

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6.9 Overall
  • Setup 8
  • Features 7
  • Interface 6
  • Performance 7

This review is based in part on CNET's Windows 8 and Surface RT reviews.

Windows RT wants to take a big leap into the future for Windows, but its shoelaces seem to have tangled on the jump forward. You wouldn't be wrong to call Windows RT the "lite" version of Windows 8, but since Microsoft insists on the confusing "RT" moniker, which it has never explained, "restricted" is the better adjective.

RT aims more squarely for the tablet market than anything else Microsoft has ever done, emphasizing the best of Windows 8, but it lacks a clean break with the past. In some ways it's a more impressive achievement than Windows 8 itself. That doesn't mean that it's a better operating system, and in fact it has quite a few limitations.

Microsoft's vision for the future of computers builds a new world for Windows. It works well with a mouse and keyboard, and it's great with touch screens. It lusts for apps, lives for sync, and loves real-time updates. But that's all available in Windows 8.

Windows RT, which runs on tablets and convertibles like the Surface RT shown here, is an interesting but ultimately awkward attempt to make Windows more mobile-friendly. Josh Miller/CNET

Windows RT (FAQ) is a different beast from Windows 8. It only comes preinstalled on certain tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface RT, which are most easily identified by the "RT" designation that's often at the end of their names. To be blunt, Windows RT is a thinner version of Windows 8. It lacks third-party access to the Desktop mode, so you will only be able to use programs like the New Microsoft Office 2013 (review) and Internet Explorer 10 there. No legacy Windows software will work on it, a big strike against, and the Windows Store offers an anemic app catalog at the moment. RT also won't suffer the same malware concerns that full Windows 8 will because of its different chip architecture.

Since Windows RT is only available preinstalled, you only have to log in with a Microsoft account to get started. You can also create one when you start your device for the first time, or use a locally stored account.

If you've been using a Microsoft account with another Windows 8 or Windows RT device, your personal settings will sync over. Apps must be downloaded manually, although you can download them in batch. Internet Explorer 10 bookmarks and pinned sites will sync, too.

Account syncing can take some time, depending on the speed of your connection and your specific RT device. Overall, though, getting started on a Windows RT device is quite simple.

Windows RT's interface is identical to the Windows 8 interface, and that's both a strength and a weakness. To that end, here I only discuss the impact of the new Windows interface as it pertains to Windows RT. To read our full analysis of the Windows 8 interface, please check out CNET's Windows 8 review.

Windows RT offers some of the best things about the new Windows, but the Desktop mode is even more jarring here than in Windows 8. Josh Miller/CNET

The challenges of the Windows 8 interface are more pronounced in Windows RT because Microsoft wants you to live entirely in the "Metro" mode's tiled interface -- except when it doesn't. Certain Microsoft-built programs, such as the new Office, open into Desktop mode, and there's a version of Internet Explorer 10 in Desktop mode, too. Most jarring of all is that some settings open in Metro, while others open in Desktop.

The best of the Windows 8 interface is here, though. You get live tiles instead of icons, convenient tile grouping, the useful if oddly named Charms bar, and slick swipe gestures to run two apps at once or view a sidebar of recently used apps.

Jumping between Metro and Desktop is an acceptable evil in Windows 8 because you get the benefit of running your old software in the new Windows 8 world. On Windows RT, it's awkward and potentially confusing. I wish Microsoft had solved this problem before releasing Windows RT, because at the end of the day it just makes it harder to use.

Features and support
While Windows RT does offer the best of Windows 8, its lack of support for legacy Windows programs hinders its usefulness. But it also doesn't support third-party browsers like Firefox or Chrome, at least not yet. Nor can you run replacement media player apps yet, either. It's not clear that you'll ever be able to swap in third-party programs for core apps. This is a Windows that emulates the worst of iOS.

On the other hand, the best things in Windows 8 shine here. First up is the peculiarly named Charms bar. It apparently resembles a charms bracelet. We'll leave the connection between that and Windows up to you.

Now playing: Watch this: Microsoft Surface is the best productivity tablet yet

Search is global, and includes data from all your apps that have activated the search hooks. Start typing from the Start screen and you instantly open the search utility. It can flip at a touch among apps, settings, and files. However, mildly obnoxious is the fact that it takes a swipe and three taps to pull up the onscreen keyboard. If you've got a keyboard connected, search is instant from the Start screen. From the onscreen one, though, the procedure is unnecessarily tedious.

The Share charm lets you share content in between apps. It's as much a benefit for developers as it is for the rest of us. Developers only have to code their app to connect to the Share charm, instead of having to code to have their app "talk" to another specific app. The end result is that apps share content effortlessly -- much like Android's Share mechanism.

The Devices charm places secondary devices only a touch away. This may seem odd to many people, but it's a nod to the fact that Windows 8 must serve both PCs and tablets. No matter the Windows 8 device, managing a second monitor will be as simple as managing an external drive. Because of our limited review period, we were not able to see how Devices worked with more than a second monitor, and we'll update this section soon.

One notable frustration is that it's not immediately apparent which settings controls are available from the Settings sidebar's More PC Settings, and which must be accessed through the traditional Control Panel. A good rule of thumb would be that if you're looking for a configuration related to Metro, start with the Metro settings, but unfortunately that doesn't always pan out. Here, though, it's compounded by the fact that some settings open in Metro and others in Desktop. These core inconsistencies are here to stay.

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