If a tree falls in a forest, but there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If Microsoft gets around to updating Windows RT 8.1, but there's no one still using a Windows RT device, does anyone notice?
Let's find out (about the Windows RT thing, we mean; the tree thing is an unanswerable question on purpose): Microsoft finally updated its Windows RT 8.1 operating system. The company has been promising to do so for months -- really, virtually all of 2015 -- although company reps have been cagey about what exactly it would entail.
Not that anyone thought it particularly likely, but there was a thread of a thought that perhaps Microsoft would do something dramatic to save the deeply unpopular OS, such as perhaps retrofit it with some version of Windows 10 and all of those Universal Apps. Perhaps, the theory went, that's why no one in the company would spill the beans.
The timing of the update also made sense; Windows 10 launched this summer, and other versions (such as Windows 10 Mobile) are slated to land thereafter, so it stood to reason that maybe, just maybe, Windows RT would be in line for some of that delicious soup.
Nope. Microsoft just added a Windows 10-esque Start Menu and some minute UI tweaks. That's it. That's the whole update.
New WinRT desktop with Start MenuThanks For The Start Menu, And The Memories
A Microsoft spokesperson fed us this official statement:
Microsoft has issued an update for Windows RT devices which bring several UI improvements including the popular Windows Start Menu and changes to the lock screen. The update can be pushed to any Windows RT devices already running Windows 8.1 RT via Windows Update.
We're reading between the lines here, but the above was the response we got to some specific questions about any future plans for Windows RT support, so we interpret this to mean something along the lines of, "No, we're done with this albatross of an OS."
Thus, we expect that this is probably the last significant update we'll see for Windows RT.
And it's not much of an update, anyway. It's really just the Start Menu, which is new to the OS and can be found on the Desktop environment. It's a very nice adjustment, but it's fundamentally just a UI change, and nothing more.
Start MenuAs one would expect, the new Start Menu has a header on the top with your name (and the power button), a pinned list of apps to which you want easy access directly beneath that, a list of Most Frequently Used (MFU) apps that are otherwise unpinned, a button to show all apps, a search box below that, and an app grid to the right of those that show "both immersive and Win32 apps" that "can be pinned, unpinned and resized in this area."
If you have too many apps pinned to the viewing area, you'll get a scroll bar, which will work with a mouse or touch input.
You have to enable the Start Menu by right-clicking the Taskbar, selecting Properties, and selecting the Start Menu tab. Check the box that says, "Use the Start menu instead of the Start screen." Click OK. You'll be prompted to sign out, and when you sign back in, poof, there it will be.
To bring up the Start Menu, you can either click or tap the onscreen Windows button on the lower left side of the screen or press the physical Windows button on your device or keyboard.
Old WinRT desktop The old "immersive" Windows RT environment
Does This Change Windows RT?
Yes, the addition of the Start Menu does change Windows RT, quite a bit. Primarily, it has effectively erased the old Metro-style UI environment. Now, you just get the desktop environment by default, plus the Start Menu -- which will typically launch "immersive" apps (meaning the ones that were formerly in the Metro-style UI environment). Remember, you can't run any apps on a Windows RT device that you didn't acquire directly from Microsoft's proprietary, and mostly empty, dedicated Store.
Probably no one would argue with you if you were happy to see that "we have two different environments in this OS" business go. It's definitely better this way.
But here's a bit of instruction about Internet Explorer (nope, no Edge browser) that captures the confusing mess that is Windows RT in a nutshell so perfectly that it's almost poetry:
How to use both desktop and immersive Internet Explorer
After you install this update, Internet Explorer will start in the following ways:
When you select the Internet Explorer icon on the Taskbar, MFU, or Pinned List, the desktop version of Internet Explorer will open.
When you select the Internet Explorer icon in App grid, the immersive version of Internet Explorer will open.
Additionally, when an immersive app opens a URL, it will use the immersive version of Internet Explorer. Similarly, the desktop version of Internet Explorer will be used when URLs are opened from desktop apps.
Other changes brought by the latest Windows RT 8.1 update include rounded frames for User Account images on the login screens, Start screen, Start menu, and account dialog box.
That concludes the list of other changes.
The new Start Menu is certainly a welcome change to Windows RT 8.1, and it will likely please that sliver of the market that still has a Windows RT device not collecting dust on a shelf. For the vast majority of mobile users, though, a tree may or may not have just crashed to the ground in the forest.