Despite not being mentioned at all during Microsoft’s Build keynote yesterday, Windows RT is still alive and kicking, and will receive most of the updates coming to the full-fat x86 version of Windows 8.1. Despite an additional year of trying to get Windows RT right, the ARM version of Windows 8.1 remains sluggish on the Surface RT – and by association, any other Windows RT tablet powered by the Tegra 3 SoC. And despite its status as a vestigial stump, the Desktop remains – and you still can’t run anything other than a handful of Microsoft-approved Desktop apps.
Some changes, such as the ability to use side-by-side apps and the beefed up Metro Control Panel, make Windows RT more usable – but in reality, these updates are meaningless until some updated, faster hardware arrives.
Windows RT is a version of Windows that, as far as we can tell, is an ARM port derived directly from the x86 Windows 8 code base. At a glance, both Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 look identical. If you look a little closer, though, it is clear that Windows RT lacks so many features that it isn’t clear why you would ever opt for a Windows RT tablet over a conventional x86-powered Windows 8 tablet.
With the preview of Windows RT 8.1, Windows RT now gets a Start button – but as you can’t install Desktop apps, you probably won’t ever need to use it. Likewise, you can boot to the desktop in Windows RT 8.1, but you won’t ever need to. The improved Lock screen, with the ability to slideshow your photos, means you can now use your Windows RT tablet as a digital picture frame. Improved side-by-side app snapping should make your Windows RT tablet more useful, too.
The main problem, though, is that Windows RT 8.1 continues to be really slow on the Tegra 3 SoC which powers the Surface RT, and is by far the most popular Windows RT tablet (and that’s not saying much). Microsoft has released a few updates over the last nine months that have made the Surface RT a little snappier, but Windows RT 8.1 is nothing more than another incremental update – if you have a Surface RT tablet, it will still be very sluggish. In some places, such as the updated Xbox Music app, or loading apps in general, Windows RT really struggles.
On the plus side, Windows RT 8.1’s built-in Office suite will now include Outlook 2013 RT (pictured above). There’s no word on whether the rest of the Office RT suite has been unshackled to allow macros, plug-ins, and screen recording, but we wouldn’t count on it.
As it stands, we’re still not sure why you would ever opt to buy a Windows RT tablet when there are similarly priced Atom-powered x86 devices that run the full version of Windows 8. Some Windows RT tablets with updated hardware would help, but with Intel’s Bay Trail being released this autumn, that’d probably be too little too late for Windows RT.
The Windows 8.1 RT preview should be available to download this week for Surface RT and other ARM tablet users to install. If you have an x86 laptop or desktop, go ahead and install the Windows 8.1 preview – it’s an in-place upgrade that doesn’t affect your apps or settings.
While you're here, you might also want to check out our hands-on with Windows 8.1.