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The folks at Intel recently sent me Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch laptop to try out for a couple of weeks (we'll be publishing a review soon). To outfit the laptop, Intel sent me $25 to spend on Windows 8 apps. $25 -- that's all.
That sounded like a fun, practical challenge: How far could I stretch 25 bucks when buying apps I might actually use for work? Business users are the X1's sweet spot, as has historically been the case with the ThinkPad line. Fruit Ninja and Big Buck Hunter need not apply.
It was fun -- and it was a challenge. The fun part was pretty straightforward: It's always better to shop with someone else's money.
The challenges were a little more varied. A big one was, of course, limited funds. That's something most small businesses and individuals can relate to. If I could buy whatever I wanted, this would be a longer list. Alas, that's not the real world. So although I was intrigued by apps like Tweetro, even its $9.99 price tag was too high.
Price was a factor when deciding which of two similar apps to keep for the list as well. For example, if I kicked the tires on two relatively similar apps and one cost $1.49 and the other $2.99, the lower price often won out, even if that meant forgoing a feature or two.
Another challenge was supply. It's no secret that the Windows Store doesn't have a big inventory compared with other marketplaces, especially Apple's and Google's. There just aren't as many apps yet, especially if you exclude categories such as games and entertainment.
Patience could pay off for Windows devotees, though. The Windows Store shows promise. It looks good and although there are some kinks, it's mostly easy to use. But it's going to need time, perhaps a lot of it, for developers to put some meat on the relatively lean app menu.
My self-imposed ground rules: I skipped free apps, which are obviously great for tight budgets. (I'll cover my favorite free Windows 8 apps -- from the obvious Skype to the not-so-much Windows 8 Cheat Keys -- in a separate article.) I also passed on apps that might be great but don't really fit my day-to-day job. Interesting apps such as Rental Manager for property managers and Binterview for HR and recruiters caught my eye, but I'm not a landlord and I'm not hiring.
Keep in mind, too, that I'm not necessarily stamping these apps as the gold standards in modern computing. The goal was to come up with a good mix of work tools while staying within a meager budget. Your mileage may vary. (Tips and suggestions are welcome in the comments and via email or Twitter.)
My grand total: $24.42. Tough to leave that $0.58 on the table, but a budget's a budget -- or so I thought. My zeal to come up with a good mix -- and perhaps some questionable accounting acumen -- caused me to forget about sales tax of $1.63, which put me at $26.05. Rather than drop one of the apps, I decided I could stomach a cost overrun of $1.05. Read on for what my spending got me.
The PDF is one of the file types I interact with frequently for work alongside word processing documents, spreadsheets, audio, video and images. This app lets you mark up PDFs via touch or mouse. Let the page bleed with red ink: you can highlight, chicken-scratch and strike-through to your heart's content. On my touchscreen ultrabook I found the experience a bit awkward. It helps to have a light touch when making marks and the interface and responsiveness could use some work. I imagine the experience improves on the Surface Pro or other Windows 8 tablets. Nonetheless, for the price this app was a no-brainer for me to make my touchscreen more usable.
This app brings the "Pomodoro Technique" for time and task management to Windows 8. (The Pomodoro Technique breaks down work periods into regular timed intervals, separated by short breaks.) I can't help wondering if such apps are more necessary to save us from all of our other apps that loom as potential distractions.
Passwords are top of mind these days; just check the current security headlines to see why. Given the app-centricity of the Modern UI, a password manager and encryption tool like SkeletonKey seemed even more relevant. There's actually a decent menu of security, password manager and encryption apps in the Windows Store, so it's worth checking to see if the ones you already use are available.
Nerd alert: I've always kind of dug the traditional Explorer interface in Windows, dating back to my first Windows 95 PC, when it was still File Manager. This app essentially reproduces at least some of that experience for the touchscreen era and Microsoft's Modern UI concept. SkyDrive integration is a plus.
This was my big splurge -- at just under 10 bucks, the app eats up a large slice of a small budget pie. You could stretch your $25 by sticking to $2 apps, but this one is powered by Nuance, the company that makes Dragon NaturallySpeaking dictation software. That starts at $75 for the Home Edition and runs well into the hundreds for the Professional and Legal versions. Dictation seems like a no-brainer for touch-enabled Windows 8 devices, even when they -- like the ThinkPad I'm using -- include a real keyboard. My early results have been somewhere in the "decent" to "good" territory. (See the image, the result for: "Can you hear me as I test this SpeechTrans Dictation tool?") Social and email integration are pluses for the always-connected crowd.
Search might still be Google's game to lose, but the reality is there are more information sources than ever. Pan-Search aggregates 80-something of them in a single app, from Bing to Google to social sites -- and plenty of others. It's a boon for businesses and individuals looking to keep tabs on their online presence, competitors and so forth. Among other features, you can stack results side-by-side for comparison. (Pictured is the blessing and curse of my relative search anonymity: I share my common name with a UFC fighter.)
This one caught my eye because I've been considering trying a new way to handle invoices. In early testing it looks promising, especially at this price -- clean design, easy to use. Not sure how much touch will factor in here, but it might be the most useful if you're running Windows 8 on the go across more than one device.
There are some whiteboarding and note-taking apps that appear to have more features than Office 2013: 10 Questions To Ask