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Windows 9 leaks: How to get its best new features today

Update: This article was originally published on April 16, 2014 but was updated with virtual desktop information and tweaked language on September 12, 2014 when leaks of the Windows 9 Technical Preview appeared. The Windows 9 Technical Preview is expected to be announced in late September or early October.

Between the release of the PC-friendly spring update for Windows 8.1 and the newfound introduction of universal “buy once, play anywhere” Windows apps, Microsoft is doing all it can to spur the One Microsoft vision while, well, letting a PC be a PC and a tablet be a tablet. But, sadly, the most anticipated improvements have yet to arrive.

At Build 2014, Microsoft operating system head Terry Myerson teased bringing the Start Menu to Windows 8, along with the ability to run universal Metro apps in desktop windows rather than the full screens they consume today. (See screenshot above.) Myerson didn’t say when the features were going live, however—only that they’d eventually appear in a later update for Windows 8.1 users. Does that mean later this year? The Windows “Threshold” update rumored for April 2015? Windows 9, which is rumored to be announced in Technical Preview form in early October? No one knows.

But you don’t have to wait to get those killer features. With the first universal apps hitting the various Windows Stores this week, here’s how to bring a Start menu, windowed Metro apps, and virtual desktops to Windows 8.1 today.

The return of the Start Menu

A slew of Start menu replacements hit the web the second the Start Menu-less Windows 8 hit the streets, but when it comes time to put your cash on the line, the decision boils down to just two programs: Stardock’s Start8 and Classic Shell.

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Stardock’s polished Start8 Start Menu matches the color of your taskbar. (Click to enlarge.)

Those reviews have all the nitty-gritty details, but you’ll probably want to start with Classic Shell since it’s donationware. Classic Shell includes options for both Windows XP- and Windows 7-style Start menus, along with numerous customization options. You can tinker with what’s listed in the Classic Shell Start Menu, or even change the look of its Start button to an icon of your choice. Cool stuff, indeed.

Start8, meanwhile, offers either a Windows 7 Start Menu or a Modern UI-tinged Windows 8 Start Menu that’s more in line with what Microsoft itself is cooking up. The $5 Start8 app is more polished and easier to use than the open-source Classic Shell, which is chock full of ugly buttons. Start8 still offers plenty of options and features, though, and you can’t go wrong with either program.

Windowed desktop Metro apps

Sure, the recent update to Windows 8.1 adds plenty of mouse-friendly features, but it still doesn’t let you use Modern apps in desktop windows. If you want that capability today, you only have one place to turn: The utterly superb ModernMix software.

ModernMix in action. Seriously, buy it today.

Again offered by Stardock—do you get the feeling that the folks at Stardock weren’t impressed by Windows 8?—ModernMix exists solely to let you run Windows Store apps in desktop Windows. It’s wonderful if you use Windows 8’s native apps, such as email, calendar, and Music, all of which stick to the Modern UI.

ModernMix runs like a charm even with the updates recently introduced to Windows 8.1. It’s well worth the $5 admission price.

Virtual desktops

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The virtual desktop functionality that appeared in a leaked build of the Windows 9 technical preview.

Windows has long limited you to a single desktop interface. OS X and Linux operating systems, on the other hand, support virtual desktops—essentially multiple, configurable, virtual desktops you're able to switch between, so that you can have completely separate desktop interfaces for work and play or whatever.

But Windows 9 appears destined to ditch that one desktop frame of mind. While anything can change before now and the official release of the next version of Windows, rumors and outright leaks reveal that yes, Windows 9 may just include virtual desktop support.

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One PC, many virtual desktops, courtesy of Dexpot.

Why wait? If you want to start using virtual desktops on Windows today, just download Dexpot. It's not only free for personal use, it's chock full of UI hints that remind you that new desktop experiences are just a click away. Dexpot is insanely customizable and so finely polished that it makes virtual desktops feel like a native part of Windows—which they may soon be.

Bringing it all together

There you have it: For less than the cost of a pizza, you can have Windows 9’s most-anticipated improvements right now. Give yourself time to get used to Dexpot and you'll wonder how you ever managed to work without virtual desktops. And once you’ve welcomed a Start Menu replacement and ModernMix into your workflow—especially paired with the Windows 8.1 spring Update’s tremendous tweaks—you might just be surprised how well those newfangled Modern apps translate to the familiar desktop experience.

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