Windows RT – Same, Same, but Different?

The initial reaction when it was made known that Windows would also be available for ARM processors was that this was a good thing both as a competing offering versus the traditional x86 stronghold, and ARM having a good track record when it came to CPUs not requiring a lot of power and thus being able to run for hours on battery power.

When Microsoft said that it might be a bit different from regular Windows people became more suspicious and it didn’t take long before many labeled it as a crippled Windows. While the 32- and 64-bit builds of Windows 8 were being made available as public betas early on this didn’t happen with the ARM-edition so it was difficult to make up one’s mind before release. (Not that the software being available would have helped without hardware to back it up.) Originally it was called Windows on ARM (WOA), but a couple of months prior to release it was rebranded as "Windows RT". (Note that it’s not to be confused with WinRT/Windows Runtime which is the application framework for all Windows 8 editions, including Windows Phone.)

With the arrival of the Surface RT from Microsoft themselves, as well as ARM-based options from OEMs it’s finally possible to actually get a feeling what it’s all about.

I’ve read a couple of the reviews online on both Windows RT in general and more specifically the Surface RT in particular, and I guess you could call the reactions mixed. Both "love it" and "hate it" has been observed. Some of the grievances and/or praise concerns the operating system, and some of it the hardware itself. I’m not going to try to give yet another full on review of either one of the RTs, but I thought I’d try to sort some things out.

The title of this post is "same, same, but different". And that is the feeling I get with Windows RT. It’s Windows, but it feels slightly different than it used to.

The desktop is still present:

You get an old time favorite like the Control Panel:

One of my personal favorites is possibly Windows Explorer. Not because the file manager itself is magic, but because one of my pet peeves with iOS is that there is no option for browsing the file structure. For many things I do on my iPad this doesn’t matter one iota, but for some tasks it’s painful to have to rely on apps shuffling files to other apps back and forth. I don’t feel like I’m in control. Of course, this could be just me, but I like having a file browser available. (Yes, I know Android devices offer this too, but Android tablets are a different story altogether.)

The Look and Feel
The UI is of course driven mainly by Metro, and the Windows Store. Whether you like Metro or not isn’t specific to RT. If you like Metro on your desktop Windows 8 it acts the same way here, and if you hate it on your desktop…Well, at least it feels more natural on a tablet than a desktop 🙂 (I know I’m supposed to call it "Modern UI", but I guess the Metro moniker stuck with me.)

With Windows 8 Pro & Enterprise you can use a domain account to sign in the way you always have, and you can link this account to a Microsoft account, (formerly known as a Windows Live id), for downloading apps and syncing settings through the cloud. Windows RT cannot be joined to a domain, and can’t use a domain account. (When accessing file shares you can use domain credentials.) You can still choose whether you want to use a Microsoft account or local account for login, but if you use a local account for login you cannot sync your settings even if you add a Microsoft account for the Store and/or apps.

The device comes preloaded with selected Office 2013 apps; namely Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. These are desktop apps, but OneNote is also available for download as a Metro app (this one applies to Windows 8 for x86/x64 as well). I guess that covers what you’re most likely to be using on a tablet (from the Office suite) although I really would have liked to have Outlook as well. The Metro mail app isn’t really the same.

Speaking of the mail app Exchange ActiveSync is supported and the device will enforce security policies. Apparently it only supports EAS 14.0, and while I had anticipated 14.1 I concede that this does not really matter all that much.

So, what else have we got?

We have the registry editor:

MMC (shown here with the certificates snap-in loaded):

There’s the things you’d expect from Administrative Tools as well:

A real nifty thing is that "God Mode" as introduced in Windows 7 also works 🙂

(To access “God Mode” create a new folder and rename it to “GodMode.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}”.)

I’d say this does actually look a lot like what we’re used to from normal Windows.

But what about the apps? Isn’t it locked down so you can only use the Windows Store to acquire apps – that’s a bit of a deal-breaker, right? Well, it’s both yes and no as the answer to that question I suppose. When you build and debug Metro apps you need to sideload them outside the Store. Since you can’t run Visual Studio on Windows RT you deploy the app through Visual Studio Remote Debugger. This app is a desktop app that you acquire the old-fashioned way; downloading from MSFT’s web pages, hitting install, and running it. So, clearly, there is not a hard restriction in the OS client side preventing install files. It is signed by Microsoft so there could of course be a policy in effect saying unsigned apps can’t be installed. And your signing certificate probably wouldn’t be trusted by default. But as I’ve already stated the certificates MMC is available so unless they’ve hidden the publisher certificates in some secret location it might be possible to add it.

A different challenge with this scenario is that when you use Visual Studio for coding the apps, as one often does on the Windows platform, there is no option to build for ARM… There are apparently some unofficial ways to get around this, but I have not tested them personally so I can’t vouch for how this works. Of course, this doesn’t help you much if you have legacy apps you didn’t produce yourself – they will not work unless whoever made them recompiles them for you.

Which reminds me that the Lync client is fairly decent in it’s Metro incarnation.

It’s lonely there because I’m signed in to my Office 365 developer account, but I have tested with my corporate Lync account so it’s proven working in a live environment too 🙂

Enterprise App Store / Mobile Device Management
Microsoft wrote on their "Building Windows 8" blog that there would be a possibility for internal app stores, and management of the devices through an agent pre-installed on the device.

The enrollment interface is present in the RTM release so it should be possible to do something as shown in the blog post. Low level details are not documented yet, and I don’t have a server to enroll against so I can’t test it out. What I can tell however is that if you try to enroll the agent performs a DNS lookup for (where is the suffix of the email address you provide).

Coincidentally this is the same url Windows Phone 8 tries to locate if you attempt to enroll for Enterprise Apps through the "Company Hub" feature.

Same management infrastructure shared between Windows Phone and Windows RT? Possibly. There is an MDM API for Windows Phone (not public yet) so there will be third-party solutions providing management, and I’d also expect both System Center Configuration Manager and Windows Intune to support both platforms though I have no ETA. Probably not significant for most people, but should you be interested the MDM bits are based on OMA DM. (Perhaps recycling earlier efforts from Windows Mobile and System Center Mobile Device Manager.)

And did I mention that USB is supported? The Surface sports a regular USB port, no adapters required, which will happily work with keyboards, mice, and flash drives. It still requires drivers of course, so don’t go digging out that old multi-function printer-scanner thing gathering dust in the corner unless you know it supports ARM. A side effect of this fixes something that I miss on tablets every now and then – the possibility of wired Ethernet (USB->Ethernet adapter needed if your RT tablet doesn’t have native RJ45). Ironically the Apple USB adapter serves this purpose nicely, and browsing the MSFT forums provides the ARM driver (and instructions) for this adapter:

So, are we dealing with a gimped version of Windows? I don’t necessarily think so. As evidenced it has most of the underpinnings of normal Windows. RT does suffer from a lack of app availability and not being able to re-use Windows apps you already have could be a deal-breaker for some. For actual working, and not just consuming content, it plays out better than the iPad (in my opinion) as it feels more like a laptop than a "dumb" tablet while providing benefits not present in today’s laptops.

Perfect? No. Way better than any “tablet edition” we’ve seen before? Indeed.

A lot of people, myself including, are probably eager to see how it compares to the Surface Pro running x64 Windows 8. The specs are available, and they indicate the Pro is a bit thicker and slightly heavier. You’ll get a better display and more CPU power though, although it most likely is pricier to make up for this. Might still be worth it to be able to run 64-bit Windows in a sleek package on the go.

The official Surface comparison:

Come to think of it – there is one snag with Windows RT. The new touch-friendly Minesweeper app doesn’t support ARM 😉

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