The primary idea behind the interface of Windows 8 and Windows RT seems be developing an OS that's suited for either the mouse or touchscreen. Given the growing homogenization of the mobile and PC space that's a great idea. However, a few needling flaws prevent Windows RT from capitalizing on this as well as Windows 8 does.
On a mobile, touch-enabled device like the Microsoft Surface, RT's interface is a rousing success. By either touching the screen or swiping the touchpad with two fingers, you can scroll smoothly across the tiled Start Screen.
Since the taskbar has been axed, the Windows key now lets you jump between your current application and the Start Screen.
Some of "Metro's" other features are just as slick, but not terribly intuitive. The Charms bar - which houses a Search, Share, Devices, Settings and Start key - is opened by swiping from the right of the screen. With the mouse, bringing the cursor to the top right corner will trigger the charms.
Since it's accessible while in an app, on the desktop, or at the Start screen, the charm bar is the closest thing to a Start menu replacement Windows RT has.
Still, some of the most basic functions are a bit tucked away. For instance, the power button, which lets you sleep, shutdown or restart, is filed under settings. That doesn't really seem like a setting to us.
Searching can be equally obtuse, especially for a first-time user. For example, our search for Windows Update appears to give us no results. However, a closer look at the settings icon reveals that there are actually five results.
That's because the search defaulted to the app category, which has no relevant results for our query. We had to touch settings in order to see relevant results. As is often the case with Windows RT and Windows 8 in general, the results are there, they're just organized in a way that makes them easy to miss.
However, when it comes to multitasking, Windows RT does it better than any other tablet OS - Android 4.1: Jelly Bean or iOS 6 included. Swiping from the left allows you to toggle through currently active apps. It's sort of like the Windows RT version of alt-tabbing, and it's one of the slickest, coolest-looking aspects of the new interface.
This is Windows doing its best Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" impression. Not only is it convenient and intuitive, it's actually fun to use. It might even make anyone watching over your shoulder gasp a little. It made us feel like a magician pulling tricks out of our sleeve.
By swiping from the left and then dragging back a little, you open up the switching pane. This is a thumbnail list of your currently active applications, sort of like the recent apps list in iOS 6. This lets you manage more than three or so apps quite handily.
Finally, in its last bit of multitasking magic, Windows RT is capable of running two apps at once in a splitscreen fashion. By swiping from the left or dragging an app out of the switching pane, you can trigger a sort of picture-in-picture that allows you to watch a video while reading your email, manage your music playlist while looking at photos, or chat while browsing the web.
Not every app will run this way, most games won't. But for certain specialized situations, it's absolute perfection. If you needed to reference a picture while talking to a friends, or listen to an interview while transcribing in Word, it's an ideal set up.
Of course, doubling up on intensive programs, like a movie and a graphics-heavy web page, will cause performance issues and stuttering.
The "Metro"-style interface might be attractive, but it can be rather foreign and intimidating when you first start using a Windows 8 or RT device. Thankfully, your old friend the desktop is just a touch away.
Pressing the Desktop icon on the Start Screen takes you to the familiar windows start screen. However, Windows RT doesn't allow third-party programs to be installed here. All that can be readily accessed is Internet Explorer and the Windows RT suite of Office 2013 products.
In many ways, it feels cut off from the new Windows experience. For example, it allows you to have two different instances of Internet Explorer running at the same time. You can open one in "Metro" and one on the Desktop. It feels a tad schizophrenic, we'd have prefered a more seamless integration of the two.
There's also a handful of things that can only be done via the Desktop - dragging files off of a flash drive and onto the system drive, for instance. While many Start screen apps can access files via USB, there's no way to save them short of dragging and dropping to the Desktop.
Start screen apps will be able to access files you've moved this way, but there's no way to save them without a trip to the desktop. This seems like an oversight.
While we're on the subject, a touch-based interface is not ideal for drag and drop, so the desktop is one place you'll definitely use a mouse or touchpad. As is, Windows RT had a hard time distinguishing between a long press for highlighting and the touch equivalent of a right-click.
Bottom line, the new interface is a success, but requires users to meet it halfway and learn its quirks. The fact that RT still has a desktop is a bit mystifying. It's highly limited but sadly still essential. It's simply not suited for a touch interface, which you'll realize the second you open up Control Panel, or anything with a bunch of little icons and tabs. Thank goodness the Microsoft Surface type cover has a touchpad.