Music and movies and TV shows, oh my!
Microsoft may be stuffing gratis copies of Office into Windows RT slabs and small-screen Windows 8 tablets alike, but all the spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations in the world won’t change the fact that the modern UI was made for mobile devices—and mobile devices just beg to be used for media consumption.
Fortunately, although the Windows Store still lags in many crucial app categories, it pretty much has entertainment down pat. Sure, it would be nice if more big-name music services called Windows 8 home, but these 14 stellar music and movie apps can keep you rocking out and tuned in long into the night—especially if you’re into streaming services.
Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way first. Of course Netflix is on Windows 8. Netflix is everywhere.
There’s little to say about Netflix that hasn’t been said already. The Windows 8 app sports a modern-style makeover that blends right in with the rest of the touchtastic operating system’s fingerlicious motif. If you’re going to download only one video app, make it this one—assuming you’re willing to pony up $8 per month for a Netflix subscription, that is.
What Netflix is to streaming movies, Hulu Plus is to streaming TV, offering a ton of next-day content from the big-name broadcasters. And even though Hulu’s movie selection is sort of shabby in general, the service boasts the highbrow Criterion Collection, something Netflix can’t claim.
The modern UI fits Hulu Plus like a glove. But cheapskates, take note: The Windows Store app is for Hulu Plus, which requires an $8-per-month subscription. If you just want to scope out all the free stuff on the Hulu.com website, you can simply boot up the modern version of Internet Explorer 10, which itself offers an awesome video-watching environment.
But wait! What if you want free streaming videos, with no subscription strings attached? Check out Sony’s superb—and totally free—Crackle app. The movies and TV shows aren’t as recent as the titles available via Hulu or Netflix, but you’ll still find (slightly older) gems such as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Pineapple Express, Resident Evil, Revolver, Seinfeld, and The Shield. (You should also check out the highly excellent Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.)
The selection skews toward action, sci-fi, and comedy titles, and the ads come a bit hot and heavy, but hey—you can’t beat the asking price. Some Windows Store users say the app is buggy and crashes constantly, but I’ve never encountered any technical issues running Crackle.
Hyper for YouTube
For all of Crackle’s greatness, it still can’t replace YouTube as the go-to online repository for fantastic, free videos. One problem: YouTube, like virtually all of Google’s services, isn’t available as a Windows 8 app.
In the absence of an official YouTube client, I’ve come to love Hyper for YouTube—a slick and attractive third-party alternative that offers the little extras missing in most Windows 8 YouTube apps, such as video-quality options and (gasp!) subscription/account support. And in case you were wondering: YouTube + Search charm = awesomesauce.
If the first four app selections teach us anything, it’s that streaming video services can be hit-or-miss when it comes to title selection and device support. That’s where Plex comes in.
Once you’ve set up a PC as a Plex Media Server, you can stream your entire local movie and music collection anywhere you have an Internet connection. The $5 Windows 8 Plex app is a Plex client, meaning it can receive and play your video streams, in contrast to the full-blown video-slinging Plex Media Server program, which is available only as proper desktop software.
Still, Plex rocks, and this app offers a killer way to tune in to your media library from afar. (Windows 8’s baked-in Video app can play locally stored vids just fine.)
Like Google’s services, IMDb has yet to appear in the Windows Store. Movie Guide is a solid modern-tinged replacement, complete with scads of information about nearly 70,000 movies (and their actors), in-app movie trailers, and the ability to add flicks to a handy-dandy watch list. Movie Guide looks great, handles well, and plugs a big hole for cinema buffs.
Not all movies are just on the small screen, and not all apps are dedicated to streaming or local playback. Cinephiles will find a steadfast friend in Flixster, an app whose entire existence revolves around getting you to the movie theater.
Flixster takes care of the basics, of course: After you allow the app to access your location, it offers a list of nearby cinemas, along with the movies those theaters are playing and their showtimes. Beyond that, Flixster provides a synopsis, a cast listing, HD trailers, review blurbs, and yes, even ratings from Rotten Tomatoes for each and every individual title. Flixster is a veritable cornucopia of cinematic information—it’s just too bad the app doesn’t divulge turn-by-turn directions to the theaters you select.
Oh, and as for streaming: Flixster lets you watch your UltraViolet-stored flicks from the cloud, too.
YouTube may be giving Windows 8 the cold shoulder, but Vevo is not. This superbly designed app looks amazing and offers more than 75,000 HD music videos, around-the-clock access to original Vevo TV content, and even the occasional live concert—all for the low, low price of nothing whatsoever.
Seriously: There’s a lot to like here. The app’s excellent filtering options and Search-charm integration make finding just what you’re looking for a breeze, and Vevo rocks hard even while it’s snapped to one side of the screen. Check it out.
And with that genre-straddling app out of the way, let’s turn our attention toward apps designed to soothe the savage breast. Music apps, here we come!
Microsoft actually baked a pretty decent music program right into Windows 8 in the form of the Music app. Beyond mere local-file playback, the Music app sells millions and millions of songs as digital downloads.
More awesomely, the Music app also hooks into Microsoft’s Xbox Music Pass service, giving users access to a vast library of tunes, all ready to be streamed on demand (or via the radio-esque Smart DJ feature) at a moment's notice. Freeloaders get 10 hours of gratis ad-supported tunes, while a $10-per-month subscription lifts the listening cap, dumps the ads, and unlocks Windows Phone and Xbox streaming support.
Xbox Music Pass isn’t as well rounded as its competitors, but it easily gets the aural job done—especially if you don’t mind staying within the walls of Microsoft’s ecosystem.
Speaking of Xbox Music Pass’s competition, Slacker Radio offers a Windows 8 app, and it utterly rocks.
Everyone who downloads the Slacker app gets its slick Live Tile-inspired interface and helpful Search-charm integration, which pulls results from artists, songs, albums, and Slacker’s radio stations alike. The service offers hundreds of stations, with each delving deep into a particular niche with help from a living, breathing DJ—no bots here. (You can have Slacker craft autogenerated radio stations based on specific artists of your choice, though.) Better yet? You can listen to Slacker’s radio stations for free, and for as long as you want.
Premium subscribers can play music on demand in Spotify-style fashion. Plunking down cash also unlocks special ESPN and ABC News radio channels.
What, you mean you want to listen to actual radio stations? Windows 8 has you covered there, too, with iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio.
Of the two, I prefer TuneIn Radio, which streams more than 60,000 radio stations from around the globe. Local stations show by default, but you can dig deeper—using TuneIn’s superb filters or the Search charm—to find terrestrial tunes from virtually every niche, and from lands far away.
It’s the little extras that make TuneIn so great: From podcast listings to the ability to pin individual stations on the Start screen to TuneIn’s support for the Windows media keys on your keyboard, this app covers all the bases.
Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio is another fine aural app, serving a sort of mashup between Pandora (which isn’t on Windows 8) and TuneIn Radio.
iHeartRadio lets you tune in to a wide variety of terrestrial radio stations, and the service also includes several streaming-only stations exclusive to the app. Like Pandora, iHeartRadio grants you limited skips per hour on those stations, and it can autocreate custom stations featuring artists similar to a musician of your choosing.
All in all, iHeartRadio rocks, but it does have some drawbacks: Most of the available stations are culled from Clear Channel’s U.S. affiliates—in contrast to TuneIn’s far-flung selections—and the app is limited to U.S. listeners only. Sorry, Borat.
But what if you don’t know what you want to jam to? That's where Songza comes in. The Music Concierge feature at the core of the app dishes out expert-curated playlists based on moods or themes keyed to specific times of the day, as you can see in the picture. Just pick one, and Songza starts streaming.
It’s a terrific setup, conducive to mindless listening that’s just as easy as the constantly flowing tunes in the missing Pandora app. If you have something specific in mind, Songza’s Explore function reveals dozens of radio stations dedicated to every musical specialty you can think of. It doesn’t offer Spotify-esque, on-demand listening, but that doesn’t matter: Songza is still plenty groovy as is.
If you’re a music buff, you’ve probably already heard of Shazam. It’s simple at its core: When you tap the Shazam logo, the app will listen to the song you’re rocking to (using your device’s microphone), and then identify it. The gimmick is less handy on a Windows tablet or laptop than it is on a phone, but it’s great to have when you need it, and Shazam is scarily accurate.
Shazam is more than a mere song identifier, though. The Windows 8 app lets you tag as many songs as you’d like, and once the app identifies a song, it provides lyrics, an artist biography, a YouTube search for the song, an option to buy the track through iTunes, and more.
The Windows 8 HTPC
“Sure, Windows 8 has all these nifty entertainment apps, but who has a Windows 8 tablet?” you ask, clutching your iPad in a white-knuckled death grip. Fear not: These apps translate well to touchscreen laptops—and heck, even to desktops—since the modern UI’s minimalistic, finger-friendly focus lends itself well to skimming through music and movies. And if you’re into using an itty-bitty PC as a living-room set-top box, check out how Windows 8 stacks up as a home theater PC. (Hint: Pretty well, actually.)
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!
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