One of Windows’ greatest strengths is its compatibility with millions of peripherals. Due to its complete domination of the PC market, manufacturers must ensure that their devices work with Windows – and for the most part, they do. The one exception to this rule is the period immediately following the release of a new version of Windows, and Windows 8 and RT are certainly no exception to the rule.
In the case of Windows 8, hardware support is virtually unchanged from Windows 7 and Vista – but in some cases, hardware vendors still need to issue new drivers that Windows 8 will agree to install. If you are upgrading from Windows XP (which you are probably running on a 32-bit system), you may have some issues with older peripherals that never had their drivers updated to Vista/7/8.
In both cases, though, the solution is to make sure that updated drivers exist for the peripherals that you own. The Windows 8 upgrade assistant will generally tell you which peripherals are incompatible with the new OS – but you can also check manufacturer websites for updated drivers, too.
Windows RT, the cut-down version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM rather than x86, is another matter entirely. You can’t upgrade to Windows RT – you can only buy devices with Windows RT pre-installed – so there’s no upgrade assistant to tell you whether your peripherals will continue to work. There is a Microsoft Windows RT Compatibility Centre website, but how many consumers will actually seek out that site before buying a Windows RT tablet for themselves, or a loved one this Christmas?
In general, the hardware compatibility landscape for Windows RT is good. Most simple peripherals that you own, such as mice, keyboards, printers, USB flash/hard drives, and digital cameras will work just fine with Windows RT.
Support starts to break down with devices that have complex functionality or use non-standard protocols, however. Most notably, none of Apple’s iOS devices will work with your Windows RT tablet (including the Surface RT). This is due to Apple using a non-standard, proprietary protocol which Windows RT does not support. While the Microsoft site doesn’t explicitly list the iPhone 5, we assume the new Lightning connector and protocol is not supported either. Again, this means your iPhone, iPad, and iPod will not work with Windows RT.
Also not supported by Windows RT are USB scanners and webcams, stylus pens, and other funky input methods (many-button mice, trackballs). Your USB keyboard will work, but only basic media buttons are supported (volume, mute, play/pause, etc). PS/2 peripherals are not supported.
Headsets and microphones are supported for playback and recording, but additional hardware buttons (mute, hold) may not work. Any of the above features included in other devices (such as a multifunction printer or MFP) will also not work with Windows RT.
On the flipside, devices that support MTP (media transfer protocol), which covers most other smartphones and portable music/media players, will work with Windows RT. Windows RT also supports the Xbox 360 gamepad (and other XNA-compatible gamepads), and most DLNA-enabled receivers (such as your Xbox, smart TV, etc) should support Windows RT’s “Play To” function (where your current song/video is played through your TV).
Will peripheral support improve?
By now you have probably worked out that Windows RT supports most basic, simple peripherals – but is completely incompatible with whole swathes of complex and multifunction peripherals. This is because Windows RT uses class drivers; generic drivers written by Microsoft that support whole classes of devices (removable storage, input devices, printers, etc).
If the class driver doesn’t exist – such as for webcams and scanners (capture devices) – then the device isn’t supported. It is possible for device makers to produce third-party drivers for their products, but at the moment these drivers are few and far between (the shift from 32/64-bit x86 to 32-bit ARM will take a while to recover from).
Moving forward, it’s possible that Microsoft will add further peripheral support/compatibility to Windows RT, but we’ll simply have to wait and see. It still isn’t clear how or when Microsoft intends to roll out major Windows RT updates.