Bend Windows 8 to your will with these free tools

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Suggesting that reviews of Windows 8 have been mixed is a bit of an understatement, but you don’t have to take my word for it; Microsoft's bold new operating system is available right now, and if you spend some time with it I wager there are elements of the operating system that you absolutely love (the speed!) and parts you might love to tie a rock to and fling into the nearest large body of water (the Start Screen!)

If you're still on the fence about Windows 8, we have a few tips and tricks that might sweeten you on this already inexpensive upgrade. The PC permits unparalleled levels of customization, and third-party developers haven’t been sitting idly by, waiting with bated breath for Microsoft’s latest operating system to launch; they’ve been busy building new tools for tweaking your new operating system. Specifically, they’ve been working hard to create a number of different apps designed to reduce or eliminate Windows 8’s biggest annoyances, in addition to apps that allow you to customize Windows 8 more meaningfully than Microsoft permits by default.

So if you miss the Start button from Windows 7, if you’re an Apple fan who needs a little more visual consistency to ease your transition to Windows territory (or just install it on a virtual machine), or if you’re tired of looking at the same ol’ lock and start screens on Window 8, we have a great list of free utilities that you can use to bend Windows 8 to your will. Let’s get started!

Unleash a Lion with the OS X Skin Pack

Here’s a fun but controversial tweak for your Windows 8 operating system — if you’re an Apple enthusiast attempting to make the full plunge to a more productive OS, or if you drool with jealousy at your friends various MacDevices, then the OS X Skin pack is your ticket to a fully functioning Windows 8/OS X hybrid operating system.

Here’s the big spoiler, however: it’s mostly for show. Install the skin pack on your new Windows 8 PC (it's as easy as double-clicking on an executable, sitting back, and pouring yourself a delicious beverage while it chugs along) to install a slew of different apps on your system that all work together to recreate the OS X experience on Windows.

RocketDock makes your Windows PC look like a Mac machine.

You can read full documentation on all the application you're installing and how they work together on the Skin Pack website, but the most important programs include RocketDock, which grants you the ability to have a permanent shortcut bar full of icons on your screen that will automatically grow and shrink in size as you mouse between them, and Finderbar, which dumps a fairly convincing bar across the top of your screen that mimics the perma-menu-bar you’d find in OS X.

The Finderbar automatically updates when you run an application, but it doesn't work quite as smoothly as OS X since programs like Microsoft Word will still give you an actual toolbar to work with. It can sometimes end up looking pretty goofy if you run applications with lots of tools and options, but that's the risk you take in trying to blend the features of two disparate operating systems.

In addition, the DeskDrive utility causes an icon to pop up directly on your desktop whenever you slap a USB key onto your system or pop a disc in your drive.  It’s one of the many programs in the OS X Skin Pack that make your Windows PC work a little more like Lion, and it's the kind of little detail that I particularly enjoy (I also appreciate the Skin Pack including the staple OS X screensaver, Flurry).

The OS X Skin Pack is purely cosmetic, and won't change anything about how your PC actually performs.

The OS X Skin Pack is pretty robust, but you'll need to do some tweaking after you install it to really get the most out of your new desktop. First, you’ll want to make a pass through the settings of all the various apps that make up the package, since any icons you’ve previously stuck to your Windows 8 taskbar now conflict with the menu options on your Finderbar.  Some icons in your RocketDock, while pretty, don’t really do all that much; iTunes and the App Store just jump you to the corresponding websites, for example, and Sticky Notes doesn't work very well as of publication. Since the software is free it's hard to complain about a few bugs, but you need to be prepared to deal with them; I couldn’t get the Exposé feature to work at all, for example. If you find a solution, let others know in the comments below.

If you're a little apprehensive about such a drastic OS makeover, know that switching back to Windows 8 is as easy as uninstalling the OS X Skin Pack.

Try Windows 8 Manager

At first glance, the Windows 8 Manager utility from Yamicsoft looks a bit dodgy and I was initially apprehensive this application might be a bit bloated with spyware or unnecessary programs; after downloading and testing the utility I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's safe to use and does offer a few unique features for Windows 8 customization (along with a smorgasbord of utilities for optimizing, cleaning, and securing your Windows PC).

Installing Windows 8 Manager is a breeze.  Simply download the .zip file from the website (linked above), then unzip it to your PC and run the application. Once you’ve got the app loaded up, ignore almost everything on its left-most sidebar except for the big “Customization” label.  Click that, and notice that the app has a few powerful options for direct customizations.

Windows 8 Manager affords you more control over your Windows 8 Start screen than Microsoft normally allows.

First off, you can manually set how many rows you’d like your tiles to take up on the Windows 8 Start Screen. That alone isn't something worth writing home about, but it’s still a tweak that could allow you to better organize your apps and lock Windows 8 into a more pleasing appearance.

You can also remove the “uninstall” option from the right-click, bottom-bar menu of Start Menu tiles or add a new option to “Run as different user,” depending on your preferences and/or needs.  Clicking over to the “Explorer (I)” tab allows you to make some manual adjustments to Desktop Mode’s File Explorer — including the ability to hide the various items in File Explorer’s left-most window pane, like “Homegroup,” “Libraries,” or any “Network” options. This could be useful if you want to control how other users can access your files and folders on the Desktop.

The lion's share of what Windows 8 Manager can do isn't specifically geared for Windows 8 (you won’t find a way to disable the Start Screen outright, for example) but they’re still helpful tweaks for users who want a bit more control over the look and feel of their operating system.  For example, you can reduce the size of your alt-tab icons and disable various Aero features in the “Desktop” tab within the standard “Customization” window.  The “Taskbar” tab lets you stop your open windows from grouping within application icons, ditch previews entirely, and kill all the recent files that could otherwise appear in each icon’s “jump lists,” to name a few tweaks.

You can tweak the Taskbar, Desktop and other aspects of your PC to better match your unique needs.

While it would be great if Windows 8 Manager afforded you more power to bend Windows 8 to your will, I can’t fault this app too much because it does offer a fantastic amount of customization options for free (though you can register the product for $30 in order to receive free technical support and future updates).  It’s easy to use, easy to apply, and easy to revert: The three most-wanted elements of any OS system tweaking utility.

Seek solace in Classic Shell

I’ve saved the best app for last because Classic Shell is probably the ultimate free tool for bypassing Windows 8’s most controversial features — specifically, the annoyance of having to always deal with Metro.

Installing Classic Shell is a breeze. Download it and allow the utility to install with all of the default options enabled; you won’t even have to wait through a reboot to see the fruits of your digital labors.  A brand-new icon that looks like a cross between the Windows logo and Shell gasoline will appear in the lower-left corner of Desktop Mode’s taskbar.  Click it (or hit the Windows key on your keyboard) and you’ll be surprised (and probably delighted) to find that the Windows 8 Start screen does not appear. Instead, the fabled “Start menu” from classic Windows has returned!

It looks, acts, and works exactly like the Start menu you’d expect to find in Windows Vista or Windows 7.  If that’s a bit too jarring for you, or if you want to revert Windows back to even earlier time periods, you can right-click on the icon, select Settings, and then click on the “Start Menu Style” tab to transform it into a “Windows Classic” version that looks like classic Windows XP.

Classic Shell lets you have your cake and eat it too by changing the Windows 8 Start menu to fit your preference.

If you’re wondering where your normal Windows 8 Start screen went, it’s not gone forever;  you can still access it if you hold down the Shift key and click on Classic Shell’s Start button (or press the Windows key on your keyboard).  You can also change which Start menu you use based with the “Basic Settings” tab on the aforementioned Settings window.

One important fact to note: Toward the very, very bottom of the Basic Settings tab is an option that comes checked by default, “Skip Metro Screen.”  When you next restart your system, you’ll notice that Windows 8’s Metro UI pops up as usual, but is quickly replaced by Windows 8’s Desktop Mode. that's how Classic Shell works; it just automatically launches the Windows 8 Desktop as soon as you boot up your PC. If you ever want to go back, simply uncheck that "Skip Metro Screen" option.

But wait, there’s more!

Click on the “All settings” button toward the bottom-left of Classic Shell’s Settings menu, and your three available tabs will explode into 13 different tabs for further customization of your Start menu.  While you could spend days editing variables like the time delay for menus, what items appear on the Start menu’s right-click context menu and the specific buttons, links, and options that appear on the entirety of the Start menu itself, it’s important for Windows 8 haters to make note of the “Windows 8 Settings” tab.

Disable active corners to stop Windows 8 from annoying you with popups whenever you move your mouse to a corner of the screen.

In here, you’ll find an option that lets you switch “Disable active corners” from “Start screen” to “All,” removing the Metro bits that pop up whenever you hover your mouse in one of the four corners of your screen.

Testing note: Switching over to the app’s “All Settings” option gives you the ability to customize a special Classic Explorer toolbar that’s supposed to appear within File Explorer. I couldn’t quite figure out where this was, or how to get it to appear, so don’t go too crazy customizing a toolbar that might not even exist.

Tweakers beware!

I’ve covered three excellent utilities that I tested personally for this brief Windows 8 customization guide, and there are plenty more out there if you do a cursory Google search.  However, just because an app exists doesn’t mean that it’s going to be able to do exactly what it promises without error.  Since Windows 8 is so new, there are a number of apps that were created based on outdated versions like the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

For example, the app My WCP Start Screen Customizer – which sounds like a super-easy method for changing the color or image on the Windows 8 Start screen to anything you want – ended up slapping every single Metro tile I had into a single, huge row. Worse, it managed to bork my Start screen so badly that no app would even load.

In other words, don’t just install a bunch of tweaking apps the moment you find them.  Do a little research first or fire up a copy of Windows 8 running on a virtual machine (if you can somehow get past the licensing key requirement) and test your apps there before you use them to tweak your primary PC. If something goes wrong, you’ll be glad you did!

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