Nov 17, 2012 (04:11 AM EST)
10 Great Windows 8 Apps
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
Windows 8 has a dual personality. Its hybrid interface represents both the Windows of the future -- the slick, touch-oriented Start screen with its colorful Live Tiles -- and of the past, better known as the Windows Desktop.
The venerable Desktop has been around since Windows 95 (yes, 17 years ago), and for good reason: It's a mature UI that's well-suited for a keyboard-and-mouse PC. To borrow one of Apple's pet phrases: It just works. Unfortunately, the Desktop in Windows 8 is a little less capable than its predecessors. It lacks a Start menu, the starting point for finding local files and programs UI, and feels tacked on. Windows 8 novices, particularly those who've upgraded from earlier versions of Windows, will find themselves jumping between the new Start screen and the old Desktop to perform basic tasks.
If this sounds confusing, well, you'll probably have plenty of company as more users upgrade to Windows 8. Because by trying to be all things to all users -- it's a desktop OS! A mobile OS! -- Windows 8 is a big ol' mess.
Don't get me wrong. The new Windows 8 Start screen is wonderfully designed, particularly for multitouch tablets and hybrid tablet/laptop devices with keyboards, such as Microsoft's new Surface RT.
The problem is that the Windows 8 Start screen and the old-school Windows Desktop shouldn't coexist in the same OS. Each works very well on its own, but Microsoft made the mistake of cramming both in the same UI. The result is a design compromise that will please no one. (In fact, I didn't appreciate how polished the Windows Desktop truly was until I began using its crippled Windows 8 variant.)
To be fair, there's a lot to like in Windows 8, particularly if you spend the majority of your time navigating the new Start screen, running apps downloaded from the Windows Store, and avoiding the Desktop like the compromise solution that it is. The best way to achieve this is to buy a new Windows 8 PC or tablet, but leave your old Windows 7 machines unchanged.
Which raises an important question: Will most enterprises bother to upgrade to Windows 8, particularly when Windows 7 is so capable? There's a good chance many will not, as doing so could result in a litany of end user gripes, costly retraining sessions, and lost productivity.
If you plan to upgrade to Windows 8, click through the slideshow below. We selected 10 great apps and utilities from Microsoft's Windows Store, some of which will help ease the transition from earlier versions of Windows.
The Start menu -- the essential navigational tool that has graced the Windows UI from Windows 95 through Windows 7 -- is missing from Windows 8. Rather, the new Start screen is the go-to spot for finding apps and files. Longtime Windows users may struggle with the new paradigm, however, particularly if they decide to spend most of their time in the comfortable confines of the Desktop UI. One of the more annoying aspects of using Windows 8 is the need to switch back and forth between the Desktop to the Start screen to do simple stuff, such as searching the hard drive for a file or tracking down a legacy Windows program.
The solution: Install a third-party utility such as Classic Start 8, which brings a Windows 7-style Start menu to the Desktop. In addition to providing fast access to programs and files, it offers a faster way to shut down your PC than the multi-step Windows 8 method, which is a bit confusing.
One of the more maddening aspects of the new Windows 8 Start screen is that lacks a clock that's visible at all times. Sure, you can always check the time by accessing the Charms bar, which brings up a time/date window in the lower-left corner of the screen. And if you're working in the Desktop UI, the time and date are still visible in the lower-right corner.
There's good news, though. The Windows Store has dozens of clock apps that run right on the Start screen. For instance, the free Jojuba Software Clock (pictured) is a handy, no-frills timepiece for the Start screen. Launch the app, and you'll see a gargantuan clock and calendar, as well as a stopwatch, timer and alarm.
Microsoft bought Skype last year for a staggering $8.5 billion, so it's no surprise that Redmond would make an extra effort to fuse the ubiquitous VoIP service with Windows 8. A free download in the Windows Store, Skype integrates nicely with the new UI. For instance, when you pin a contact to the Start screen, you can click or tap that person's photo to start a video or voice call, a chat session or send an SMS text via Skype. And unlike Apple's insular iMessage and FaceTime apps, Skype works across multiple software platforms, including Windows, iOS, Mac and Android.
Skype may be the Microsoft's communications tool of choice for consumers, but Lync gets the nod for Redmond's enterprise clients. The new Lync app has been "reimagined" for the new Windows 8 UI, which means the capable communications app is optimized for touch, and features the sleek, clean look of the interface formerly known as Metro. Lync users can switch between IM, video or voice conferencing, or use all three at once. A free download from the Windows Store, the Lync app also snaps to the side of your screen, which is handy for referencing a website or another app during a demo. Lync requires Lync Server or an Office 365/Lync Online account to work.
Microsoft's entertainment-oriented app lets you use your Windows device -- probably a tablet or smartphone -- as a second screen to compliment your Xbox 360 activities. For instance, the Xbox SmartGlass app could display additional details on characters or locations for a TV show you're watching on the living room HDTV. SmartGlass also works with Windows Phone, Apple iOS and Android devices, and is clearly built for fun. This could change in a hurry, however, if enterprises find uses for the innovative technology. As InformationWeek's Paul McDougall points out, financial traders could use SmartGlass technology on mobile devices to view news and other metrics while making trades on a desktop display.
Microsoft's note-taking tool has gotten a Windows 8-style makeover. Built to work with multiple devices, meaning tablets, smartphones and PCs, the free OneNote app lets you enter information by typing, drawing or writing. It conveniently saves your notes to your SkyDrive account as well. OneNote is integrated with Windows 8's search tool to help you find your notes quickly, and it can access to your device's camera (with your permission) for taking photos and adding them to your notes.
PC Monitor is an encrypted app for monitoring an IT environment remotely. It lets you perform a variety of administrative tasks from afar, such as viewing current CPU usage, available memory and status and uptime of all PCs on a network. It can monitor up to 5 computers for free. PC Monitor also has versions for other mobile platforms, including iOS, Android and Windows Phone. In addition, it supports a variety of server modules, including IIS, Active Directory, Exchange, SQL Server, Hyper-V and VMware.
This free measurement converter works with a variety of weights, lengths, volumes and other units. Its scroll bar interface is really designed for touchscreens, but also works reasonably well with your mouse or trackpad. It makes some unusual measurements too. For instance, did you know that the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is the equivalent of 32, 598.4 inches? Well, now you do.
For basic image editing, Fhotoroom is a good choice in a thinly-stocked Windows Store. It features 15 editing tools, including such crowd favorites as crop, rotate, sharpen, flip and mirror. Fhotoroom also includes 21 photo styles and 22 picture frames and borders. The paid version costs only $1.50 and supports photos larger than 3 MP -- an important consideration with today's pixel-packed cameras -- and provides access to additional filters and tools.
If you'd rather use a traditional Windows desktop app with more editing tools, there are plenty of free options available, including GIMP and Photoscape, as well as Web-based alternatives such as Google's Pixlr Editor.
Sometimes the best apps are the simplest ones. As we discussed earlier, Windows 8 is a significant departure from its predecessors, and longtime Windows users are bound to grow frustrated when trying to learn basic tasks, such as how to close Windows Store apps. (You don't have to close them, actually, but there's a way to do it.)
Windows 8 Cheat Keys is a great way to discover shortcut keys and other navigational tips for the new Start screen. Digitalmason.net's free app shows a few tips per day via toast notifications -- pop-up messages in the upper right corner of the screen -- and Live Tile updates. If you'd rather learn faster, simply launch the Cheat Keys app and scroll through the collection of tips.