The first time you boot up your shiny new Windows 8 tablet and witness Microsoft’s live tiles in all their constantly shifting, multi-hued glory, it’s only natural to want to dive into the Windows Store and try a few apps out for yourself. Just one problem, though: There are tens of thousands of Windows 8 apps available, and Microsoft doesn’t do a great job of directing people to the cream of the crop.
Fortunately, I’ve already played around wi… um, researched, hundreds of apps to find the very best. If you’re new to Windows 8, these are the apps you’ll want to install first.
Windows 8 Cheat Keys
Microsoft doesn’t do a great job explaining the various interface changes introduced in Windows 8, which could throw you for a loop when you’re looking to, say, shut the system down, close an app, or simply print a web page.
Some manufacturers include proprietary Windows 8 tutorials into their boxed PCs—most notably Vizio’s helpful full-color manual and Dell’s preinstalled video tutorial app—but if yours does not, check out the free Windows 8 Cheat Keys app. In addition to corralling a big list of controls, tips, and all-around useful knowledge in the app itself, Windows 8 Cheat Keys pops up random notifications throughout the day to keep the new controls fresh in your mind. It’s a great way to get a hang for the OS gradually.
Instead of relying of Microsoft’s native Music app —which only grants you 6 months of unlimited gratis tunes and doesn’t play well with non-Microsoft devices—head to the Windows Store and download the Slacker Radio app, instead. Slacker’s Windows 8 app is gorgeous example of modern UI design, and its 200-plus stations cover the width and breadth of the musical landscape, with each curated by an honest-to-goodness, flesh-and-blood DJ. Those excellent ad-supported stations can be streamed for free, forever, while upping to a $10 per month subscription opens on-demand listening for Slacker’s entire catalog. Plus, the app keeps streaming while docked or minimized, which can be a hassle if you try streaming music in-browser with the modern version of IE10.
Netflix or Hulu Plus (or both!)
The modern UI found in Windows 8 seems tailor-made for watching videos, with its emphasis on full-screen windows and large, touch-friendly controls. The native Video app, unfortunately, places more emphasis on selling you premium a la cartedigital downloads than actually displaying your video library.
Netflix and Hulu Plus, on the other hand, transferred to Windows 8 absolutely beautifully, complete with slick UIs that blow the pants off of their browser-based iterations. If you subscribe to either $8 per month streaming service, you should pick its Windows 8 app post-haste. Unfortunately, the rest of the Windows 8 video app options aren’t nearly as enticing.
Now it’s time to get down to the fun stuff! The Games section of the Windows Store is the most saturated of all, but we’ve already done the legwork to single out the best Windows 8 gaming apps available.
Any of those games will keep you happily occupied for hours, but I find most of my time devoted to a trio of titles in particular: The turned-based robot-on-robot combat of Robotek, the fast-paced side-scrolling action of Jetpack Joyride, and the serene simplicity of Pinball FX2. All three should work fine enough on touch and non-touch screens alike, but the games are definitely better suited for finger-friendly displays.
Speaking of games, if you have an Xbox 360, you have to check out Microsoft’s Xbox SmartGlass appright now—it’ll make you feel like you’re living in the future.
At its most basic, Xbox SmartGlass allows you to control your console from your PC or tablet, quickly launching apps and games much faster than you can with a controller. In a slightly more intriguing role, the app lets you push media you’ve bought through Microsoft’s services from your PC to your Xbox and back again. At its best, Xbox SmartGlass serves as a full-blown second screen companion for your console experience, divvying up complementary maps, stats, and song queues for games as well as a dizzying array of video and stat-tracking features for the ESPN and NBA GameTime Xbox apps. Plus, you get full access to your Xbox Live profile and Friends list. Simply put: Xbox SmartGlass is awesome.
Some people would say that Microsoft made several miscues when it transitioned the Live Tile interface over to the desktop, but one omission in particular rubs me the wrong way: The modern Start Screen doesn’t include any time or date information unless you pull up the Charm bar or desktop. Jujuba’s free Clock app—which also includes a calendar—displays the current time and date in its Live Tile, making it a must-have download.
Microsoft whipped up the Fresh Paint app to show off the finger-friendly prowess of Windows 8. It worked! The various brush types and color options will have you losing yourself in doodles for hours even if you’re not the artistic type. Pass on this if you’re rocking a traditional desktop, but it’s a shining star on touchscreen devices.
News Bento or Pulse News
Two great newsreaders make it easy to stay on top of your favorite online news sources in easy-to-read formats, but the specific one you should install depends on just how—and where—you hope to read.
Of the two, News Bento offers the better pure Windows 8 experience, with a slick white-and-blue look that blends right in with the modern UI and articles that expand in fill the screen in newspaper-like fashion. The app only has a modest selection of baked-in news sources, but it allows you to subscribe and News Bento-ify any RSS feed from the web, meaning its content reach is pretty much unlimited.
The popular Pulse News reader (and its vast library of sources) is also available on Windows 8, but it has a few more negatives than News Bento. The dark aesthetic is slightly jarring compared to the general modern UI feel, and the app itself is little more than a shell for the Pulse web app—you can’t even share stories with the Share charm. It works fine as a basic newsreader, however, and you can log in to your Pulse News account to create a seamless reading experience across Windows 8 and Pulse’s Web, Android and iOS apps—which is why I personally picked the Pulse app for my PC.
Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook
If your tastes skew more towards long form than quick web hits, the universal Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook apps have made the leap to Live Tiles, bringing all the synchronized bookmarks and deep e-book catalogs you’ve come to expect along for the ride. Both are outstanding apps for outstanding services; if you’ve already invested in one of the two platforms, that’s the one you should download.
C’mon, it’s Skype! The Windows 8 app works well Snapped to one side of the screen, and it takes advantage of its favored status—Skype is owned by Microsoft—to integrate with the contacts in your People hub. You don’t have to leave the app open to receive its benefits, though; it pops up a notification if you’re in another app and somebody wants to chat, and the Skype Live Tile updates to show missed calls and new IMs alike—just in case you’re AFK when a friend tries reaching out. Skype is everything a Windows 8 app should be.
The native Messaging app doesn’t include support for most of the top instant messaging services out there, including Google Talk, ICQ, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, or Jabber. IM+ does, while also offering the same Facebook and Windows Messenger IM functionality as the native Messaging app—and it pops up a notification when somebody pings you on any of said services. In other words, it’s head and shoulders above Microsoft’s baked-in solution.
Music Maker Jam
The final entry in this list is just plain fun. Music Maker Jam drops a bevy of pre-made dubstep, jazz, and so-called “tech house” instrument loops on your lap and tasks you with creating a tune from scratch by adding individual instruments, applying effects, tinkering with timing, and more. Additional music types can be bought through in-app purchases. Think you have the next Rapper’s Delight on your hands? You can even record your mixes in MP3 format.
Brad Chacos spends his days digging through desktop PCs and tweeting too much. He specializes in graphics cards and gaming, but covers everything from security to Windows tips and all manner of PC hardware.