Why I want a Windows RT (ARM) tablet

Microsoft has now announced that the first Windows RT tablets will come from Asus, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, and from Microsoft itself with Surface.

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Windows 8 on ARM is a different thing to Windows 8 on Intel. On Intel, most Windows applications will run. On Windows RT, the ARM version, only Windows Runtime apps (also known at Metro-style, Modern and Windows Store) will run. There is still a desktop mode, but it is reserved for a special version of Office along with a few utilities like Explorer.

On the face of it, the Intel version is a better deal, because “you get it all.” However, there are times when less is more; in fact, that phrase practically defines the success of Apple’s iOS, which does not run applications coded for Mac OS X.

The problem is this. On a tablet, the Windows desktop is a horrid experience, unless you get out not only your tablet, but also your keyboard and your mouse or stylus. Even the stylus can be a problem, and having lived with Windows 8 on a Samsung Slate tablet for some months, I find a mouse works best.

We have seen this before, with the old Windows tablets starting with Windows XP. OEMs came up with clever designs with twist screens and styluses which clip into the side. These machines certainly have their uses, but they were not mainstream and they were not cheap. Intel Windows 8 tablets will have all the same problems. The poor experience offered by the Windows desktop user interface with touch was a key reason why Microsoft came up with the radical WinRT alternative.

Windows RT on the other hand promises a better tablet experience. with the additional bonus of longer battery life and a lighter, more efficient device. You cannot install desktop apps, but if the Windows 8 ecosystem fails to come up with WinRT apps to cover the essential computing activities, then the Windows 8 project will have failed in its goals.

There is also Microsoft Office of course, which makes some effort to support touch control though it could be better. Still, I would rather have Office which at least has been designed with the knowledge that some users will be controlling it with touch, than all those other desktop applications which presume keyboard and mouse.

The importance of having Office there is that it makes the difference between having to have a laptop with you as well while on the road, and being able to get all your work done on the tablet alone.

This issue does not seem to be well understood either by Microsoft’s OEM partners nor by the general public. I do not blame the latter. On the high street or at the airport, there will be rows of Windows 8 tablets with similar Start screens, and the difference between Windows RT and Windows Intel will be hard to convey. I can imagine salespeople saying, “You should get this one, it is the full Windows,” and steering customers towards the awkward, confusing experience that is Windows 8 on an Intel tablet.

One disappointing remark buried in the announcement:

Over 90% of the RTM applications in the Windows Store support Windows RT

That means 10% of WinRT apps currently do not support ARM, presumably because there is some native x86 code in there.

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9 comments to Why I want a Windows RT (ARM) tablet

  • Unless Office was re-designed from the ground up for tablet use, it’ll likely not be a very pleasant experience to edit any sizeable document on the go. And if it was redesigned, how much of it would still be compatible with regular full-blown Desktop Office documents?

    Fixing typos or adding text (notepad-style) will probably be nice enough, but real-world spreadsheets? formatting complex word docs and laying out with print preview? Color me skeptical…

  • Of course there will be lots of Windows RT devices with keyboards and mice…

  • tim

    @mary no objection to keyboard/mouse as long as it works ok without them

  • Niclas Lindgren

    Tim, I don’t really understand what you are getting at. An Intel Windows 8 slate will be the same experience as the Windows RT ARM if you choose it to be? Most if not all Windows RT apps will run on Intel and you have the choice wheather to go for the desktop mode or not, but you can just choose to stay in metro mode all the time. You are not forced to use desktop apps on intel, but you don’t have the choice on an Arm.

    The Window RT’s (ARM) strength will be battery life, heat and weight. I don’t understand why you bring in desktop apps into the mix as a benefit they are not available, could you elaborate?

    I could see a point where OEM’s bloat the slate with crappy software that brings you to desktop mode or otherwise hamper your experience. That will not happen on a pure Windows RT device.

  • George Ou

    Better battery life and connected standby is NOT only for ARM. It works on Intel SoC systems like Clover Trail. Sinofsky has put this in the fine print since his February post and yesterday’s post. I’ve reported it for a while. http://www.informationweek.com/byte/commentary/personal-tech/tablets/240001444

  • tim

    Thanks for the comment George. I think we should wait for the actual devices to see which is more efficient – my guess is ARM but we will see.

    Tim

  • tim

    @Niclas The problem is that you do end up installing desktop apps, and then you get stuck in the “oh no I need a mouse and keyboard” problem and it is frustrating. Another issue which I hope will not exist in the ARM version is that having both WinRT and desktop versions of IE is horribly confusing. That’s why for *tablet* use the ARM build will be better for most people.

    Tim

  • Niclas Lindgren

    @Tim I don’t understand that point of view. Why would you end up installing desktop apps if there are WinRT apps that do the job? On an ARM device you would have to find another device to solve the problem for you unless there is a RT app, which is better?

    I agree that desktop IE and Metro IE are confusing. But not allowing Silverlight, which is a superb video streaming plugin if nothing else and restricting flash to some sites is a big experience breaker which I am sure most people on iPads feel daily even years after they were launched. You wouldn’t even be able to watch the live windows 8 launch or surface launch even a couple of months ago on a ARM RT device. That is just mind blowing.

    I think that is the biggest turn off of the whole Windows 8 thing, suddenly Microsoft went down the route where they restricted choice and cut compatibility, they never did that before and I don’t think it will resonate well. For the platform to be successfull people must feel a trust in the platform, a trust that it will not be reworked tomorrow. That’s why they should have kept compatiblity with SL, just to show that you can trust us to build on the technology we make even if the techology was superseeded in the market.

    There is seldom a good business reason for breaking compatiblity even if us techies want to break compatibility and support for software of the last version when a new is shipped. Techies shouldn’t be allowed to make such decisions and somehow it happened at MS where the business side used to be much stronger.

    Leave the choice there for your users, build a MS prestine Windows device (which they are doing) to show the world how you want windows to be experienced and hope that people want that more than whatever some OEM come up with to destroy your device, but let there be a choice..

  • Richard

    I use Kingsoft Office on my TF300 and have absolutely no problem creating any Word document, Excel spreadsheet or Powerpoint presentation, long short or in between. I sometimes use a keyboard and mouse, but the screen does a great job. However, I want Windows RT over Jelly Bean. I have great hardware on my tablet, but Jelly Bean is slow and sometimes unresponsive. I think Windows RT will perform better and I look daily for the hackers to release a ROM for my tablet.