You might already know that there are two different versions of Windows 8 (actually, three, but the differences between Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 aren’t huge). Those are called Windows 8 and Windows RT, and Microsoft hasn’t exactly done the greatest job at informing everyone what the difference is. There’s a lot of confusion out there, which is a shame, because the difference is very important and, as it turns out, not all that complicated.
Put simply, Windows 8 is for PCs, and Windows RT is for tablets. That’s a slight oversimplification, but not by much. Both operating systems offer a Desktop mode. Desktop mode is basically the Windows 7 experience, largely unchanged aside from the lack of a start button and the presence of the hot corners. Hot corners are the four corners of the screen – mousing up to the upper left allows you to switch between apps and desktop mode, clicking on the lower left brings up the start screen, and either right corner brings up the Charms bar, which opens up universal search and share functions, along with settings.
In both Windows 8 and Windows RT, you’ll start up with the new start screen, lined with Live Tiles and Windows 8 apps from the Windows Store. Apps found in the Windows Store can run on either version of the operating system. However, only Windows 8 allows for the use of third-party software – that’s where you’ll run full versions of Chrome, Firefox, Steam, or any older PC games you want to play that aren’t Windows Store apps. Windows 8 also has support for older programs that you may have used in earlier versions of Windows. So in other words, in Windows RT you won’t be able to run any third-party programs that are designed to work in the desktop environment- all you’ll be able to use are apps that have been released on the Windows 8 Store. At the moment, there are apps for most basic computing needs already available – Web browser (Internet Explorer), email, chat, and the like – but the Windows 8 app store is still lacking right now, though that will doubtless change in the future.
So, which is best for you? The Windows 8 apps are designed for a mobile computing experience, while its desktop mode is designed for a full-featured PC experience. The dual nature of Windows 8 is what opened up the new hybrid class of devices, like the Asus Taichi, Dell XPS Duo 12, and the Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 13. The great thing about these hybrids isn’t just that they can physically transform from notebook to tablet, but that they run an operating system – Windows 8 – that can transform from a user experience suited for notebooks to a user experience suited for tablets. If you like the idea of having one device that can function as both your notebook and your tablet, Windows 8 isn’t just the right choice – right now, it’s the only choice.
Windows RT, on the other hand, is purely a tablet platform. That’s not to say you can’t get any work done on an RT device – you can still access Microsoft Office using an RT device, and there are enough productivity apps to get you through whatever you need to work on. Still, the lack of flexibility in a device that can only run Microsoft-approved apps isn’t well-suited to the working world. If you already have a notebook that suits you, and you’re just looking for a tablet and happen to like the look and feel of Windows 8, RT should be sufficient. Keep in mind that the other difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT is the processor – RT devices run on ARM processors, while full Windows 8 devices run on more powerful Intel Core processors. That means RT devices will be less powerful (as generally any tablet would be less powerful, when compared to a notebook), but will also boast better battery lives.
The best, or at least most prominent, example of a Windows RT device is the current Microsoft Surface. Incidentally, it’s also one of the only examples right now – other than the Surface, the Asus VivoTab RT has seen release, while other devices, like the Dell XPS 10, have only been announced. One of the Surface’s big selling points is that keyboard cover, which makes it look like an ideal hybrid device. Unfortunately, it’s not – the Surface is just a tablet, but the keyboard will come in handy if you want to use any Microsoft Office apps. That said, when the Microsoft Surface Pro hits sometime next year, it will run Windows 8 Pro, and will be a true hybrid like the Asus Taichi or the Dell XPS 12.
If you want a notebook, go with Windows 8. If you want a tablet, go with Windows RT. Of course, if you go with the former, you’ll probably be getting a device that can be all of the above, which seems to indicate that Windows 8 is the superior operating system of the two. That’s mostly true, in every way but price and battery life. If you don’t want to spend too much, and don’t really need to get that much work or gaming done on your PC, you probably can save money and go with an RT device. If you rely on your computer for work, or if you’re into video games that don’t come from an app store, getting a Windows 8 device over an RT device isn’t just suggested – it’s practically essential.
Update 12/10/12: We have updated the post with some additions and clarifications.