How to get Windows 10's best new features today

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Windows 9? Fuhgeddaboutit. Microsoft skipped that digit and jumped straight to Windows 10 for the next-gen version of its operating system. Revealed at a preview event on September 30, Windows 10 aims to atone for the sins of Windows 8 by wooing PC power users with a mix of compromise and outright bribery. 

Further reading: Hands-on with Microsoft's new Windows 10: UI changes that look great at first blush

A reborn Start menu, windowed Metro apps, virtual desktop support, and enhanced Command Prompt tools are enticing lures indeed. Alas, Windows 10 itself isn't expected until the middle of 2015—a veritable eternity for folks slogging through Windows 8's Live Tiles. But fear not! You don't have to wait to get the best of Windows 10 today.

Microsoft will offer a Windows 10 Technical Preview in the months ahead of the operating system's launch, but if you don't like the idea of slapping pre-release OSes on your computer, some handy-dandy software can deliver some of Windows 10's highlight features to your Windows 8 PC today

Consider it a taste of things to come. Let's dig in!

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.

start8 taskbar Stardock

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.

You might also consider Start Menu Reviver. We didn't like it quite as much as Start8 or Classic Shell, but its tile-infused interface mimics the look of Windows 10's Start menu much more closely than its more classicly themed counterparts.

Windowed desktop Metro apps

windows10 app commands Image: Microsoft

A Metro app running in a desktop window in Windows 10.

Sure, the Windows 8.1 spring update added 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.

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 in action. Seriously, buy it today.

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

windows10 tech preview virtual desktop Image: Microsoft

Windows 10's virtual desktop feature in action.

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 10 ditches that one desktop frame of mind, adding support for multiple desktops via a new "Task View" feature.


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 will soon indeed be.

Bringing it all together

There you have it: For less than the cost of a large pizza, you can have Windows 10’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.

Now if only there was a tool that added keyboard shortcuts to the Command Prompt...

Editor's note: 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 Technical Preview appeared. The article was updated again on September 30 2014 when Windows 10 was revealed.

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