What Is Windows RT?

Everything you need to know about the mobile-first edition of Windows 8

Screenshot of Windows RT 8.1 Start Menu

Windows RT was Microsoft's first tentative step towards bringing Windows into the mobile age. Released alongside Windows 8 in 2012, Windows RT was only ever available on select devices. Although Microsoft has discontinued the operating system, you may still find yourself with a Windows RT device, as extended support runs until 2023. Here's everything you need to know about Microsoft's mobile-first edition of Windows 8. 

Windows RT was an edition of Windows 8, and was updated to Windows RT 8.1. It's also known by its pre-release codename, Windows on Arm (WOA), not to be confused with Windows Runtime (WinRT), a programming interface for Windows first introduced in Windows 8. 

What Was Windows RT?

Most editions of Windows have been developed to work on x86 and x64 processor architectures, and for many years you could purchase either edition depending on your computer's internal components. 

With the rise of mobile computing on smartphones and tablets, manufacturers began designing System on a Chip (SoC) circuits specifically for mobile devices. Some of the most popular SoCs use the 32-bit ARM architecture, leading Microsoft to choose this configuration for their Windows SoC support. 

Windows 8 saw Microsoft overhaul the design of Windows, creating a new design language initially known as Metro, but now formally called the Microsoft Design Language (MDL). 

Screenshot of Windows RT 8.1 Start Menu with customization options displayed

Windows 8 featured a new fullscreen Start menu with touch-friendly tiles, and the addition of the Windows Store, which contained downloadable apps written using Windows Runtime. These apps could run on x86, x64, and ARM architectures. 

Screenshot of the traditional Windows Desktop mode in Windows RT 8.1

For x86 and x64 devices, behind the new Start menu, was the traditional Windows desktop alongside some new features and a modified UI. Due to its restraints, Windows RT didn't support traditional software, instead relying solely on the new Windows Store. 

Which Devices Run Windows RT?

Microsoft traditionally doesn't implement many controls on devices capable of running Windows, but they made an exception for Windows RT. They worked closely with manufacturers and built to strict specifications to uphold a quality level across all Windows RT devices.

Due to this strict control, only a handful of Windows RT devices were ever released. They are:

  • Microsoft Surface
  • Microsoft Surface 2
  • Asus VivoTab RT
  • Dell XPS 10
  • Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11
  • Nokia Lumia 2520 
  • Samsung Ativ Tab

How Does Windows RT Work?

The design and basic function of Windows RT is very similar to Windows 8 and Windows 8.1. When you first boot the device, the fullscreen Start menu will be shown with live tiles that update throughout the day. 

Screenshot of Windows RT 8.1 Apps list showing customization options

The Start menu screen is customizable, allowing you to pin your favorite apps and resize their tiles. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen displays a list of all currently installed apps. 

Unlike regular editions of Windows 8, Windows RT only comes with a limited amount of software pre-installed. All Windows RT devices include Office 2013 Home & Student RT, which initially included Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote. Outlook was also added as part of the Windows 8.1 update. 

Screenshot of Word RT Product Information screen on Windows RT 8.1

While it's possible to access the traditional desktop, there are very few options once there. File Explorer, Internet Explorer, and Office RT are the only supported applications in desktop mode. All other applications, installed via the Windows Store, use the 'Metro' MDL interface.  

The Future of Windows RT

The limited functionality of Windows RT devices meant they weren't as popular as Microsoft hoped they'd be; Microsoft's manufacturing partners also declined to create further devices. Not long after the release of Windows RT, Intel began developing x86 SoCs for Windows 8, reducing the need for the ARM-based Windows RT. 

Microsoft launched their final Windows RT device, the Surface 2 in October 2013, and discontinued it and Windows RT when stocks of the device ran out in January 2015. The company instead shifted their focus to their Surface Pro line of own-brand devices. 

As Microsoft did not provide an upgrade path for Windows RT from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10, mainstream support for Windows RT ended in January 2018. However, extended support runs until January 10, 2023.

With Windows 10, Microsoft aimed to create one core edition of Windows that could run across all devices and architectures. However, they did launch a spiritual successor to Windows RT in 2017, known as Windows 10 S. This edition of Windows 10 was also feature limited, and could only install apps from the Windows Store. Windows 10 S was discontinued in January 2018.