Update: It struck me this morning (in the shower, natch), just why Windows RT is so confusing to me. I might be a bit behind the curve here (after all, it was months before I tried it out), but I understand now why Windows RT is so oddly limited and schizophrenic. In other words, why does it include a desktop mode that’s so anachronistic for an otherwise purely touch-based device meant to compete with Android tablets and the iPad? Then it hit me: desktop mode exists purely because Microsoft hasn’t yet released a modern UI, touch-based version of Office. Once they do, I wager the desktop mode will disappear, Windows RT will be aligned properly with Android and iOS, and all will be right with the world (or, at least, with Windows RT).
I ran across the Dell XPS 10 32GB Windows RT tablet for $349 at Costco.com the other day, and I had to give it a try. I’ve read the reviews, but until I get my hands on something I tend not to draw any final conclusions. I know I’m quite a bit behind the curve on this one, with most commentators concluding that Windows RT is, so far at least, DOA, but I’d be remiss if I were to simply take their word for it.
I’ll not spend much time here talking about the Dell XPS 10 itself (so-so text, brilliant colors, creaky build, generic but functional), but rather will touch on some of the things that first struck me about Windows RT itself. Simply stated, I feel the way many people seem to feel about the operating system: why does it exist?
The answer should be obvious. It’s a less-functional (shall we say, neutered?) and less expensive version of Windows 8 that runs on less-expensive and less power-hungry ARM processors. It’s intended to compete directly with iOS and Android on tablets, offering the same full-screen app experience with some definite advantages (e.g., a split-screen multitasking view and a fresh, intuitive user interface). Toss in a nearly full version of Office (sans Outlook and Access), and you should have a winner.
And yet, Windows RT struggles in the market. Not only that, but prices on Atom-based full Windows 8 tablets have dropped to the point where the price difference is minimal. Perhaps it’s a blow-out sale, but I also recently ordered a Lenovo Ideapad Lynx from Costco, bundled with its keyboard dock, for $499. That’s essentially what I would pay for the Dell if I bought the XPS keyboard dock to go with it. And with the Lenovo, I can run whatever Windows apps I want (including my own copy of Office). From the reviews I’m reading, the difference in battery life and performance between the two isn’t terribly significant. So, again, why does Windows RT exist?
I’m sure that Microsoft never intended the price and performance delta between Windows RT devices and low-end Windows 8 devices to be so small. I’m sure they also intended (or at least hoped) to have more apps in the Windows app store. Right now, that’s Windows RT’s biggest weakness–a lack of good apps to go with the inability to run Windows apps. It’s pretty barren out there, folks.
What’s a shame is that I’m finding Windows RT to be fun to use and easy to navigate. It does far more than iOS in terms of the operating system itself, with better multitasking, Live Tiles, and access to the local file system, all of which are also Android strengths (with widgets in place of tiles). Maybe it’s just the newness of it, but it feels really fresh compared to Android Jelly Bean on the Nexus 10. Maybe "bright" is another good word to use, because the UI is nice and colorful—almost downright cheery. Overall, it seems responsive and smooth, I’d say more so than the Nexus 10, which has some occasional lag in the UI.
At the same time, though, not only are apps few and far between, but those available (even some of the built-in apps, such as Mail), are unstable and/or very simplistic. So far, I’ve been unable to use Mail and Evernote Touch for just this reason, and some others because of performance, syncing, and general instability problems. Windows RT has been out long enough that those issues shouldn’t be occurring so regularly, and yet here we are.
I’m going to reserve my final judgment until I get a chance to compare Windows RT to full Windows 8 on a tablet. For now, I’ll just say that I can understand the general disappointment in Windows RT, and hope that Windows 8 fairs a bit better.