Windows 8 still runs nearly all of the millions of applications programmed for it over the past decade and a half, in its desktop mode. But Microsoft's new operating system brings with it a whole new class of application. Formerly called "Metro" but now simply called Windows 8 apps, these full-screen, touch-friendly programs can connect both to the web, to each other through "contracts," and to features of Windows 8 itself, such as the Search and Share charms.
You get the new-style apps from the new Windows Store, which automates the installation and updating processes, and gives both users and developers a central place to discover new and needed software. While the Windows Store hasn't yet caught up with the more than 300,000 iPad apps available in Apple's iTunes store, according to the excellent site MetroStore Scanner, there are currently over 42,000 Windows 8 apps, with about 200 being added every day.
As with any app store (Android's in particular), a good many of these are no better than chaff, and many are country specific, though nearly 26,000 of them are for the UK. Just as with those other app stores, some gems appear among the muck. The good news? Most of the top apps we include here are completely free. Some contain in-app purchases, but even apps that cost money often offer trial versions – something not available in Apple's App Store. Most of these apps run on Windows RT tablets, and all run on full Windows 8 Pro systems like the Microsoft Surface Pro, and standard laptops and desktops.
The Windows Store does give you some help in separating the app gold from the silt. In addition to the store's Spotlight section for new and noteworthy apps, each app’s store page includes user ratings. You can also browse lists of the top paid, top free, and newly released apps, both overall and in sections like Games, Social, Entertainment, Photo, Music and Video, News and Weather, Lifestyle, Productivity, Security, Business, and more.
Whatever your software needs, we think you'll get more out of your Windows 8 PC experience by installing the top notch apps we’ve listed here, but they're not the last word – there are a number of important ones we haven't included here (for starters, our own freshly released ITProPortal Windows 8 app, which regular readers will definitely want to check out to help stay up to date with all our latest news, reviews, features, guides and deals).
What we wanted to do for this first list was to assemble a collection of apps that can make your Windows 8 PC or tablet productive and creative. You won't find any of the excellent default apps you get with Windows 8 here – the People, Mail, Photos, Music, Video, News, Games (really a game centre), Bing, and SkyDrive. Nor will you find that most useful of all apps, Microsoft Office, since it's a desktop rather than a new-style Windows 8 application.
We've linked the app names to their Windows Store descriptions and download page throughout this piece, for your convenience. Don't hesitate to leave comments below if you feel that our selections are dead-on, or if you think we've overlooked worthy candidates.
So, without further preamble, let’s move onto the apps themselves, starting with…
This one is a no brainer. If you want to visit with Grandma without having to travel across the country, there's no better choice of app and service. When you first run Skype, it will ask permission to use your webcam and to run in the background. I was a little disappointed to find that the Skype app hadn't implemented the Search charm, so I couldn't use that to find someone among contacts. The new Skype does integrate Windows Messenger, however. It's full-screen view of your video call partner and good use of the Windows 8 touch interface and notifications are a great start, but the slight downside is you don't get some Skype for desktop features like multi-party calling and screen sharing.
If you're running Windows 8 on a touch tablet, there's no better demonstration of the cool types of things you can do with multi-touch. Five simultaneous fingers are supported, and you can actually mix new colours on a virtual palette. If you'd rather not start with a blank canvas, "packs" of line drawings and cartoons can get you started. The Fun Pack is free, but the other packs cost a little money as in-app purchases.
Of course, you can just start finger or mouse painting on a blank page or a photo of your own, with a good variety of brush and pencil tips. You also choose among a dozen canvas and paper textures. Once you're done, you can export your masterpiece to a PNG file, or even use the Share charm to send it to any apps that can share to email, social networks, and more. This is a surprisingly polished app, but then it's one that has been around since the early days of Windows 8 pre-releases. What's most impressive is that the paint is just so real looking.
Audible is a godsend for those of us weary-eyed folk who spend all day staring at a computer monitor. When I get home, I love to read, but being read to instead helps save the old peepers any effort. This book reading app from Amazon is simplicity itself. After signing in, you can browse the extensive catalogue of audiobooks – from Tina Fey's hilarious bestseller Bossypants to classics such as the works of Dickens and Twain. You can preview a healthy selection of titles for free, too. There are a couple of drawbacks, though: The app doesn't uses the standard Windows 8 search charm, and you only get three categories on the main page to browse. Also, to search, you need to open the sidebar, which is really just a collapsed web page.
The latest version of Rovio's breakout hit Angry Birds series is available on pretty much every mobile platform, and it's sure to please fans of the feathered pig-smashers. During the game, you'll head out on an intergalactic journey across the deserts of Tatooine all the way to the depths of the Pig Star. Along the way, you'll use the force and wield a lightsabre in your quest to blast away the Pigtroopers and take down the evil Darth Vader, "Dark Lord of the Pigs." This one is sure to tickle Star Wars fans as well as inveterate Angry Bird players. If you're not all caught up on the series, you can also get Angry Birds Space, which is the same price.
If you're a Netflix subscriber, you'll be happy to know that Windows 8 and RT allow you to get your movie and TV show fix. The app's home page shows New Releases, and Genres options, and you can scroll through thumbnail piles of your Instant Queue, Top 10, Popular on Netflix, New Releases, Recently Added, and any of the genres you've shown a predilection for. Clicking on a thumbnail brings up the movie page, which is informative and interactive, letting you rate, play, and see who starred in it. While playing a movie, you can use the app bar to pause, fast forward/rewind, change volume, or disable/enable subtitles if available.
I was originally planning to include Evernote in this collection, but while that service's Windows 8 app does let you view, tag, search, and add notes, it's pretty primitive compared with the OneNote Windows 8 app. Unlike the rest of Microsoft Office, OneNote is not a desktop application, but instead offers apps for iOS, Android, Mac, PC, and Windows Phone, so you're covered when it comes to devices. An insertion wheel lets you add a table, tag, photo, list, or paste to your note. I use this app to take notes at all my meetings, and since I log into the same Microsoft account as on my Windows 8 machine, all my notes were available. I could even play my recording of the meetings, but playback wasn't linked to text as it is in the desktop version.
Also on the productivity veering into business side of things, Box (formerly box.net) is an increasingly popular tool for collaboration on work files. It integrates with Salesforce.com and Google Docs, and lets users share online "workspaces." It also lets users assign tasks, post comments, and can notify a user when a document involving them has been edited or commented on. With Box, anyone can get 5GB of free online synced storage, and apps are available for all the major mobile and desktop operating systems.
You might have seen people playing this game which involves connecting coloured dots with meandering lines. In a nutshell, Flow Free presents a rewarding puzzle which comes in increasingly challenging patterns. Once you've exhausted all the levels in the free version, you can access extra packs, although these cost money. If you’re a really keen fan of the game, you can buy them all in one bundle and save some cash. Note that this will also remove the ads that appear along the bottom of the game board.
No tablet platform is complete without a Twitter app. Windows 8's included People app does show you Twitter (and Facebook updates), but it's not as useful as Twitter's own app for other platforms like the iPad. Until Twitter itself releases a Windows 8 app, there are several choices, among which Rowi stands out. It uses a very clear three column view, with a huge space for the tweet you're viewing in the centre. On the left you choose whether to view the newsfeed, interactions, direct messages, or favourites. On the right side you can see your images, and can switch to trending topics. The app lets you use the Share charm from other apps to post tweets, and pops up notifications for new tweets.
Facebook is in a similar boat to Twitter when it comes to Windows 8 apps: You can get some of its functionality in the operating system’s People app, but there's no official client app. Again, as is the case with Twitter, there are several Facebook apps available in the Windows Store. Facebook+ Lite is even better than some of the store's paid Facebook apps, which often simply look like nothing more than the social network's website, and don’t add any tablet conveniences. The app uses a Windows 8-new-style interface with big buttons and swiping gestures to navigate your newsfeed, photos, friends, messages, notifications, and events. Its Start menu tile shows your important contacts' latest updates – and it lets you upload photos via the Share charm from the default Photos app.
Kindle is another one of those must-have apps, and the Windows 8 version shows large colour thumbnails of your book covers in Library view in the Cloud and Device sections, the latter for titles you've already downloaded. True to Kindle form, the app supports WhisperSync so that the current page you’re reading shows up on any device. You can change font size, background colours, and column number, and you can highlight, bookmark, and write notes. Double clicking a word brings up its Dictionary.com definition. Thankfully, Amazon has added the ability to buy new books from within the app.
This musical app from Magix lets you craft tracks by adding loops for drums, bass, brass, pads, synths, and even vocals. You can enable and disable instruments, and cycle through various options for each: For example, your synth can have the organ, filler, brute reverb, unreal, or royal synth sounds. You can raise or lower the volume, and change keys in loops. A very cool Effects graph lets you apply distortions to your composition in heavy and soft, high and low directions. You can also record your work. However, one downside is that it doesn't play while running in the background.
Another app we loved on iOS is now on Windows 8. Use it to play any web-streamed radio broadcast on earth. It can find local radio stations, has a sleep timer, and can keep playing in the background while you do other things with your PC. Stream categories include local radio, music, sports, news, and talk. Also, you can search by other locations or find and play podcasts. I only wish the app let me choose a bit rate for stations that offer several, but it shares that limitation with its iOS counterpart. The latter still has a bunch more features, such as the ability to record what you're listening to, or mark it as a favourite.
Back in the realm of amusement, Where's My Perry (from Disney Studios) is very fun indeed. It's a great use of touch input to manipulate a sewery world of water puzzles from which your goal is to extract the cute top hat-donning platypus from Phineas and Ferb. Just beware of evil villain Dr Doofenshmirtz's lasers, and collect as many gnomes as you can along the way.
CyberLink's video editing software has a good reputation, and now the company has brought some of its expertise over to Windows 8. YouCam lets you manipulate both photos and video even while you're still shooting. You can crop, tag faces, frame, draw on, and stamp photos with stock art like flowers and kissy lips. On top of its photo features, YouCam lets you trim video, and then upload it to YouTube or Facebook.
For many of the more traditional photo adjustments – brightness, contrast, white balance, along with artistic filters – look to CameraStudio+ from Moobila. It's surprisingly rich for a £2 app, with cropping, resizing, red-eye correction, as well as frames and overlays. Once you're done perfecting and enhancing your photo, you can save it as a JPG or PNG to the folder of your choice, or up to the SkyDrive cloud. It's really all you need to improve the photos you snap on your Windows 8 tablet.