A virtual smorgasbord
Whether you're new to Windows 8 or an old hand who's already swiped through all the software in our previous app recommendation roundups, it's a great time to take some fantastic, utterly free Windows 8 apps for a whirl. The vastly improved Snap experience—moving an app to the side of your screen—in the impending Windows 8.1 update makes modern-style apps infinitely more useful than before. There's never been a better time to try a modern app or two.
But where do you start?
The Windows Store holds close to 100,000 apps, many of which will cost you some of your hard-earned cash. Fear not! We're here to protect your wallet and your time. Don't spend days wading through the Windows Store searching for gems. Just download these stellar software showcases, instead.
You can say what you want about the overall app selection in the Windows Store, but there's no denying that the platform is strong on the streaming music front. From iHeart Radio to TuneIn Radio to Microsoft's own Xbox Music app, you have all sorts of free Windows 8 options just waiting to rock.
Every app mentioned above kicks butt in its own way, but for my pretend money, Slacker Radio is the best streaming music app available on Windows 8. The free version includes dozens upon dozens of DJ-curated radio stations in every genre imaginable, along with the ability to jam to robo-created stations built around artists of your choice.
Premium monthly subscriptions ditch the ads and unlock on-demand music playback, but the free radio stations are so gosh-darned good (and unlimited!) that you won't have to spend a dime if you don't want to.
There's a reason why Microsoft's television ads show off the finger-friendliness of Windows 8 with the company's homebrew Fresh Paint app: Unlike the ho-hum desktop Paint program, Fresh Paint is an absolute blast to use. Swiping your finger across your screen to paint digital pictures has never been so fun or so seamless.
While some of the app's most robust features are available only as premium download packs, the base version is completely free and should work just fine for most people.
Speaking of poking at pictures, Windows 8 suffers from a dearth of lightweight image editors. Instagram's a no-show, and even Adobe's Photoshop Express app is mostly meh. One free app stands out from the crowd, though: Fhotoroom.
This Windows Phone transplant packs a bevy of editing tools, picture frames, filters, and more to help you add those finishing touches to your candid camera shots under 4 megapixels in size. (A $1 upgrade removes that restriction and adds a few more tricks.) Even if you're not interested in participating in Fhotoroom's in-house social network, you can still share your tweaked pics on Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr. Groovy.
If you have an Xbox 360 (or plan to nab an Xbox One in a few months), Microsoft's Xbox SmartGlass app is a must-have. The app displays secondary maps, weapons selection screens, secrets, and more tied to the game you're playing on your Xbox. Though support for the current generation of games has been kind of light, second-screen apps are just starting to become en vogue companions to big-name games—and SmartGlass is the most polished one around.
If you like watching music videos, you'll love the Windows 8 Vevo app. Vevo's eye-catching design works superbly with touchscreen devices, and, more important, the service streams live concerts and more than 75,000 high-definition music videos.
Don't feel like sifting through the masses of music? Vevo also offers personalized playlist capabilities and "Vevo TV," which is basically a digital version of a broadcast music channel. A sea of content is available in this app—all available for free-as-in-beer free.
Hyper for YouTube
YouTube is undoubtedly one of the most glaring Windows Store no-shows, and while dozens of YouTube players have sprung up in Microsoft's app store to try to fill the void, most are simple Web wrappers or other uninspired fare. Then there's Hyper for YouTube.
Hyper for YouTube rocks not only because it sports an imminently usable, incredibly attractive black-and-red design, but because it comes complete with bells and whistles like video quality options and YouTube Account support. (Yeah, it sounds basic, but that's just how lackluster Hyper's competitors are.)
The start screen is a bit basic, showing only the Most Popular and Favorite videos, but Hyper's Search charm support is top-notch. And don't tell Google, but the app lets you download videos, too.
The ESPN app
The ESPN App doesn't have the world's most innovative name, nor does it offer any particularly unique features. In fact, it performs exactly as you'd expect an official ESPN app to act—but that's a Good Thing for sports buffs.
ESPN's Windows Store offering includes up-to-the-minute scoring updates for a wide swath of sports, news a-plenty, and a big selection of eye candy in the form of videos and still images. Plus, it syncs with online myESPN accounts and packs deep pinning capabilities, allowing you to pin Live Tiles for your favorite teams to the Windows 8 Start screen. Even ESPN Insider content is free in-app for a limited time. Seriously, it's hard to ask for more.
Okay, okay, I'll be the first to admit that Twitter's Windows 8 app isn't quite as seamless as the social network's Web client. (Why, oh, why do I have to click through to a tweet in order to RT or favorite it?!) But that said, Twitter's central stream-based design works very well with Microsoft's modern-interface concept, and the app is much easier to poke and prod than the Web version.
The Twitter app also ties in well with Windows 8's nifty extras. The ability to Snap the app to the side of your screen and receive system-wide notifications is alone worth the price of admission—especially since said price of admission is a low, low $0.
Another Microsoft creation—this time from the mad geniuses at Microsoft Research— Blink Cliplets "lets you exercise your creative talents by layering static and dynamic visual elements," as its description puts it.
What does that mean? Basically, the app lets you upload a video clip, choose a frame from it to set as a static image, and select elements of the video to leave in motion over said static image. For example, you could have a (mostly) still picture of an Italian fountain in which the water actually flows.
Yeah, it sounds weird, but Blink Cliplets is an absolute joy to play around with, easier to use than you'd think, and best of all, totally free. Check it out.
Khaaaaaaaaaaaaan! The vaunted Khan Academy is a cornerstone of the online education movement, and its deep collection of 3800-plus educational K-12 videos is fully available in this superb Windows app. Support for some of Windows 8's cooler tricks—such as the Search Charm and the Play To function, to send video to connected televisions—add to the allure.
You can also log in with your Khan Academy account to ensure you get full credit for watching videos if you're doing the formal learning path thing. Physics, computer science, and biology have never been so accessible.
Maybe it's the Irish in me talking, but you could spend days sifting through Cocktail Flow's deep collection of drink recipes, all of which are searchable by various filters and the Charms bar.
But Cocktail Flow doesn't stop at simple recipes, oh no: It also includes handy-dandy extras like bartender guides, recommendations for drinks similar to the one you're looking at, and the nifty ability to keep track of your favorite drinks as well as all the booze in your liquor cabinet.
Don't let the death of Google Reader get you down. News Bento is a stellar visual newsreader done up in the usual Flipboard style, but this Windows 8 exclusive rocks a newspaper-inspired look that fits right in with the overall feel of Microsoft's operating system.
News Bento's visual format fits touchscreen devices like a glove. If you're looking for a Metro-fied way to keep track of the news pouring out of your favorite websites (like PCWorld!), News Bento is the app to get. Ignore the sparse selection of in-app news sources; News Bento lets you manually add the RSS feed of any website you want.
The best free Windows 8 games
While the games section of the Windows Store admittedly needs some filling-out, you can have some fun with the free games already there while you wait.
You'll find beloved classics like Minesweeper with new twists, plus word and math brainteasers, and even RPGs. Armor up, put on your thinking cap, and have a blast!