More than nine months into the great revamping known as Windows 8, a clear vision of its core is finally starting to emerge. The baked-in apps have been streamlined and Windows 8.1 looms, ready to polish the numerous rough edges found in the original release of the operating system. But Microsoft alone can’t improve what is truly the beating heart of Windows 8: The Windows Store.
Windows 8 revolves around the Windows Store. Every Live Tile that glimmers on the modern-style Start screen is the iconic representation of a Windows 8 app—and you can only snag Windows 8 apps in Microsoft’s own Windows Store. As the Windows Store goes, so goes the Windows 8 experience.
How, exactly, is the Windows Store doing? The obvious indicators are mixed. Windows RT devices can run only modern-style apps, not desktop apps, and they’re tanking hard. But app submissions picked up steam around the time of Microsoft’s Build conference, culminating in the shattering of the 100,000-app barrier in early July, and they’re still going (relatively) strong.
That’s a great milestone for Microsoft, but it’s still paltry compared to the approximately 1 million apps in Google Play and 900,000 apps in Apple’s App Store. So it’s a good time to take the pulse of the Windows Store again: Is 100,000 apps enough to keep a body happy? As I did last February, I spent days scouring the Windows Store and taking notes in five major categories: games, music apps, video apps, social apps, and a catch-all “other” category—to see how well Microsoft covered each. Here’s how they all measured up.
In my original Windows Store evaluation, I noted that the game selection was an early highlight—and it has only gotten stronger since February. The number of available apps has tripled in that time. While the roughly 13,500 available games don’t hold a candle to the vast Android and iOS libraries, there is more than enough to keep you distracted for months to come. A lot of them are ports from other platforms, but, hey, they play just as nicely on Windows.
In fact, they play so nicely that we’ve had two separate roundups of killer Windows 8 games, with very little overlap. If you open the Games tab in the Windows Store and sort by "noteworthy," you’ll find dozens and dozens of high-quality titles. (I’ve been playing Royal Revolt nonstop recently.) Microsoft Studios in particular has released a bevy of bodacious games like Pinball FX2, Hydro Thunder Hurricane, and The Gunstringer.
Speaking of which, two games from Microsoft Studios—Skulls of the Shogun and Halo: Spartan Assault—aren’t just a blast—they’re also far-reaching, letting you play with gamers on Windows Phone and Xbox Live as well as with fellow Windows Store shoppers. That sort of cross-platform experience is an exciting tease of the potential of Windows 8 gaming in a One Microsoft kind of world. Here’s hoping it continues.
That’s not to say that all is well in Winny’s world, however. As mentioned, while the Windows Store game selection is impressive, it can’t compare to the selections for iOS or Android—you won’t find any mobile Walking Dead games or Grand Theft Auto ports here.
More troubling, the Games section, like much of the Windows Store, is filling with rip-off apps designed to trick you into thinking they’re the real deal—such as Sonic’s Ring Challenge - Bomb Dodger and Pac Pac Man. Microsoft actually highlights that last app as one of the top free apps in its Spotlight section. The official Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, a $10 app, is not featured.
Still, if you’re mindful of what you’re downloading, you’ll find a lot to like in the Windows Store’s Games section. (And to be honest, Pac Pac Man is pretty decent.)
The same general theme applies to the Windows Store’s selection of video apps: It’s not anywhere near as comprehensive as iOS’s or Android’s, but most people will find all they need within Microsoft’s modern-styled walls.
Netflix and Hulu Plus were two of the earliest entries in the Windows Store, where they were joined by Vimeo, Dailymotion, Flixster, TED Talks, and a handful of apps from individual television stations like Nick and Discovery Channel. (Note that as an app, Hulu Plus requires a subscription to use; you’ll need to dive into your browser if you want to catch free flicks.)
Beyond those stalwarts, only a handful of notable streaming-video apps have been added since February, though the additions have been of fairly high quality. Vevo’s music-video service landed on Windows 8 recently, as did Sony’s Crackle, which freely streams many older movies and TV shows. Sports buffs can now tune in to baseball games via the MLB.tv app.
Amazon Instant Video and YouTube are still glaring in their absence, but there’s a cheat for that: Internet Explorer 10’s streamlined interface is superb for streaming video. A plethora of third-party YouTube watchers are also available, and some of them function even better than the official YouTube apps. (I personally prefer Hyper for YouTube; YouTube Touch or YouTube+ are also solid options.)
Don’t dig subscriptions? Apps for Plex and PowerDVD will scratch your personal-video-collection itch, while the baked-in Video app offers both local playback options and premium digital video downloads (its interface is kind of meh, though). I also have high hopes for the VLC media player app slated to land in the Windows Store soon. If it’s anywhere near as terrific as the desktop version, life will be good for Windows tablet owners. Until then, be wary of rip-off apps designed to look like VLC or Windows Media Player.
The "little extras" are the major stumbling block for the Windows Store. A handy-dandy Redbox app just turned up, but you still won’t find apps for, say, HBO Go, Comcast, Verizon, or the dozens of other niche services out there. If you use them, you’ll miss them, but if you stick mostly to major apps, the Windows Store gets two thumbs-up—especially if you don’t mind resorting to IE10 to fill in the blanks.