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How to run x86 desktop apps on a Windows RT tablet

It was only a matter of time: You can now run conventional x86 desktop apps on your ARM-based Windows RT tablet, such as the Surface RT. x86 games like Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (see the video below) and small utilities such as WinRAR are confirmed to work on Windows RT, with the developer promising to support uTorrent and some other games in the future.

The tool, which seems to be called Win86Emu, is essentially an x86 emulator or software abstraction layer for Windows RT. If you’ve used DOSBox, or some kind of game console emulator before, Win86Emu is very similar: You run Win86Emu, select which x86 app you want to execute, and then – if everything goes to plan – your x86 app will appear.

In essence, Win86Emu grabs the API calls made by the x86 app, converts them into the Windows RT equivalent, and then passes them along to the WinRT kernel. (See: Why you should upgrade your PC to Windows 8). As far as the x86 app is concerned, it’s running on a normal x86 Windows machine.

As with any emulator, though, there are caveats. As long as your x86 app uses the emulator’s supported APIs, you’re fine – but at the moment, Win86Emu only supports a limited subsection of API calls, and some translations from x86 to the WinRT kernel aren’t perfect. As a result, Heroes of Might and Magic 3 works under the emulator, but it doesn’t have any music. Emulation is a lot slower than native execution, too – and coupled with ARM’s wimpiness compared to the latest x86 silicon, don’t expect your Windows RT tablet to run Crysis.

This hack follows on from last month’s jailbreak of Windows RT, which gives you the ability to run non-Microsoft apps on the desktop. The original jailbreak has since been turned into an easy-to-use tool that executes every time you log in – and indeed, you need to run the jailbreak before you can use Win86Emu. If you own a Windows RT tablet, XDA-Developers has a nice list of desktop apps that you can run on jailbroken devices.

When Microsoft told the world that it was splitting Windows 8 into x86 and ARM versions, we made the bold prediction that Intel’s upcoming Atom processors would kill off Windows RT. You see, the only advantage that ARM SoCs currently have over x86 is reduced power consumption – but in the next year or so, Intel will catch up.

Couple that with the fact that Microsoft made the crazy decision to lock down Windows RT’s desktop, and that Windows RT lacks the native ability to run x86 apps (Microsoft could’ve easily included its own emulator), and it’s really rather hard to imagine Windows on ARM beating Windows on x86.

Now that a couple of hackers have jailbroken Windows RT and created an x86 emulator, it will be interesting to see how Microsoft reacts. Microsoft’s claimed reason for locking down Windows RT is stability and reliability – Windows RT is consumer-oriented, and it doesn’t want ma and pa to install jury-rigged x86 apps that will cause their system to crash.

Instead of a complete lockdown, though, Microsoft could’ve just buried the switches deep within the Control Panel, so that power users would have at least had the option of running x86 and desktop apps on their Windows RT tablet. Who knows: Maybe the locked-down desktop and lack of x86 emulation is actually the result of an internal, political struggle at Wintel’s hegemonic HQ.