Suggesting that reviews of Windows 8 have been mixed is a bit of an understatement, but you dont have to take my word for it; Microsoft's bold new operating system is available right now, and if you spend some time with it I wager there are elements of the operating system that you absolutely love (the speed!) and parts you might love to tie a rock to and fling into the nearest large body of water (the Start Screen!)

If you're still on the fence about Windows 8, we have a few tips and tricks that might sweeten you on this already inexpensive upgrade. The PC permits unparalleled levels of customization, and third-party developers havent been sitting idly by, waiting with baited breath for Microsofts latest operating system to launch; theyve been busy building new tools for tweaking your new operating system. Specifically, theyve been working hard to create a number of different apps designed to reduce or eliminate Windows 8s biggest annoyances, in addition to apps that allow you to customize Windows 8 more meaningfully than Microsoft permits by default.

So if you miss the Start button from Windows 7, if youre an Apple fan who needs a little more visual consistency to ease your transition to Windows territory (or just install it on a virtual machine), or if youre tired of looking at the same ol lock and start screens on Window 8, we have a great list of free utilities that you can use to bend Windows 8 to your will. Lets get started!

Unleash a Lion with the OS X Skin Pack

Heres a fun but controversial tweak for your Windows 8 operating system if youre an Apple enthusiast attempting to make the full plunge to a more productive OS, or if you drool with jealousy at your friends various MacDevices, then the OS X Skin pack is your ticket to a fully functioning Windows 8/OS X hybrid operating system.

Heres the big spoiler, however: its mostly for show. Install the skin pack on your new Windows 8 PC (it's as easy as double-clicking on an executable, sitting back, and pouring yourself a delicious beverage while it chugs along) to install a slew of different apps on your system that all work together to recreate the OS X experience on Windows.

You can read full documentation on all the application you're installing and how they work together on the Skin Pack website, but the most important programs include RocketDock, which grants you the ability to have a permanent shortcut bar full of icons on your screen that will automatically grow and shrink in size as you mouse between them, and Finderbar, which dumps a fairly convincing bar across the top of your screen that mimics the perma-menu-bar youd find in OS X.

The Finderbar automatically updates when you run an application, but it doesn't work quite as smoothly as OS X since programs like Microsoft Word will still give you an actual toolbar to work with. It can sometimes end up looking pretty goofy if you run applications with lots of tools and options, but that's the risk you take in trying to blend the features of two disparate operating systems.

In addition, the DeskDrive utility causes an icon to pop up directly on your desktop whenever you slap a USB key onto your system or pop a disc in your drive.  Its one of the many programs in the OS X Skin Pack that make your Windows PC work a little more like Lion, and it's the kind of little detail that I particularly enjoy (I also appreciate the Skin Pack including the staple OS X screensaver, Flurry).

The OS X Skin Pack is pretty robust, but you'll need to do some tweaking after you install it to really get the most out of your new desktop. First, youll want to make a pass through the settings of all the various apps that make up the package, since any icons youve previously stuck to your Windows 8 taskbar now conflict with the menu options on your Finderbar.  Some icons in your RocketDock, while pretty, dont really do all that much; iTunes and the App Store just jump you to the corresponding websites, for example, and Sticky Notes doesn't work very well as of publication. Since the software is free it's hard to complain about a few bugs, but you need to be prepared to deal with them; I couldnt get the Exposé feature to work at all, for example. If you find a solution, let others know in the comments below.

If you're a little apprehensive about such a drastic OS makeover, know that switching back to Windows 8 is as easy as uninstalling the OS X Skin Pack.

Try Windows 8 Manager

At first glance, the Windows 8 Manager utility from Yamicsoft looks a bit dodgy and I was initially apprehensive this application might be a bit bloated with spyware or unnecessary programs; after downloading and testing the utility I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's safe to use and does offer a few unique features for Windows 8 customization (along with a smorgasbord of utilities for optimizing, cleaning, and securing your Windows PC).

Installing Windows 8 Manager is a breeze.  Simply download the .zip file from the website (linked above), then unzip it to your PC and run the application. Once youve got the app loaded up, ignore almost everything on its left-most sidebar except for the big Customization label.  Click that, and notice that the app has a few powerful options for direct customizations.

First off, you can manually set how many rows youd like your tiles to take up on the Windows 8 Start Screen. That alone isn't something worth writing home about, but its still a tweak that could allow you to better organize your apps and lock Windows 8 into a more pleasing appearance.

You can also remove the uninstall option from the right-click, bottom-bar menu of Start Menu tiles or add a new option to Run as different user, depending on your preferences and/or needs.  Clicking over to the Explorer (I) tab allows you to make some manual adjustments to Desktop Modes File Explorer including the ability to hide the various items in File Explorers left-most window pane, like Homegroup, Libraries, or any Network options. This could be useful if you want to control how other users can access your files and folders on the Desktop.

The lion's share of what Windows 8 Manager can do isn't specifically geared for Windows 8 per se (you wont find a way to disable the Start Screen outright, for example) but theyre still helpful tweaks for users who want a bit more control over the look and feel of their operating system.  For example, you can reduce the size of your alt-tab icons and disable various Aero features in the Desktop tab within the standard Customization window.  The Taskbar tab lets you stop your open windows from grouping within application icons, ditch previews entirely, and kill all the recent files that could otherwise appear in each icons jump lists, to name a few tweaks.

While it would be great if Windows 8 Manager afforded you more power to bend Windows 8 to your will, I cant fault this app too much because it does offer a fantastic amount of customization options for free (though you can register the product for $30 in order to receive free technical support and future updates).  Its easy to use, easy to apply, and easy to revert: The three most-wanted elements of any OS system tweaking utility.

Seek solace in Classic Shell

Ive saved the best app for last because Classic Shell is probably the ultimate free tool for bypassing Windows 8s most controversial features specifically, the annoyance of having to always deal with Metro.

Installing Classic Shell is a breeze.  Downlod it and allow the utility to install with all of the

Instead, the fabled Start menu from classic Windows has returned!default options enabled; you wont even have to wait through a reboot to see the fruits of your digital labors.  A brand-new icon that looks like a cross between the Windows logo and Shell gasoline will appear in the lower-left corner of Desktop Modes taskbar.  Click it (or hit the Windows key on your keyboard) and youll be surprised (and probably delighted) to find that the Windows 8 Start screen does not appear.

It looks, acts, and works exactly like the Start menu youd expect to find in Windows Vista or Windows 7.  If thats a bit too jarring for you, or if you want to revert Windows back to even earlier time periods, you can right-click on the icon, select Settings, and then click on the Start Menu Style tab to transform it into a Windows Classic version that looks like classic Windows XP.

If youre wondering where your normal Windows 8 Start screen went, its not gone forever;  you can still access it if you hold down the Shift key and click on Classic Shells Start button (or press the Windows key on your keyboard).  You can also change which Start menu you use based with the Basic Settings tab on the aforementioned Settings window.

One important fact to note: Toward the very, very bottom of the Basic Settings tab is an option that comes checked by default, Skip Metro Screen.  When you next restart your system, youll notice that Windows 8s Metro UI pops up as usual, but is quickly replaced by Windows 8s Desktop Mode. that's how Classic Shell works; it just automatically launches the Windows 8 Desktop as soon as you boot up your PC. If you ever want to go back, simply uncheck that "Skip Metro Screen" option.

But wait, theres more!

Click on the All settings button toward the bottom-left of Classic Shells Settings menu, and your three available tabs will explode into 13 different tabs for further customization of your Start menu.  While you could spend days editing variables like the time delay for menus, what items appear on the Start menus right-click context menu and the specific buttons, links, and options that appear on the entirety of the Start menu itself, its important for Windows 8 haters to make note of the Windows 8 Settings tab.

In here, youll find an option that lets you switch Disable active corners from Start screen to All, removing the Metro bits that pop up whenever you hover your mouse in one of the four corners of your screen.

Testing note: Switching over to the apps All Settings option gives you the ability to customize a special Classic Explorer toolbar thats supposed to appear within File Explorer. I couldnt quite figure out where this was, or how to get it to appear, so dont go too crazy customizing a toolbar that might not even exist.

Tweakers beware!

Ive covered three excellent utilities that I tested personally for this brief Windows 8 customization guide, and there are plenty more out there if you do a cursory Google search.  However, just because an app exists doesnt mean that its going to be able to do exactly what it promises without error.  Since Windows 8 is so new, there are a number of apps that were created based on outdated versions like the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

For example, the app My WCP Start Screen Customizer which sounds like a super-easy method for changing the color or image on the Windows 8 Start screen to anything you want ended up slapping every single Metro tile I had into a single, huge row. Worse, it managed to bork my Start screen so badly that no app would even load.

In other words, dont just install a bunch of tweaking apps the moment you find them.  Do a little research first or fire up a copy of Windows 8 running on a virtual machine (if you can somehow get past the licensing key requirement) and test your apps there before you use them to tweak your primary PC. If something goes wrong, youll be glad you did!