With Windows 8, Microsoft changed its desktop operating system beyond all recognition for many people. But underneath, it’s the same old Windows that you know and love. Here we explain how to use Windows 8, or Windows 8.1 as it is now, just the way you’ve always used Windows, as well as how to get to grips with the new Windows interface.
First things first, don’t be put off buying a PC or laptop with Windows 8. It’s very easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, which is “I don’t want to learn a new interface, and therefore I don’t want a computer running Windows 8”.
It’s arguably a big mistake on Microsoft’s part, partly to have forced the new interface on everyone, and partly because it solely used the new Start screen in all adverts for Windows 8. (See also: 5 things we hate about Windows 8.) But, here’s the good news: the old Windows is still there, and you can run all your favourite applications including your word processor, email, photo editor, games and more.
With the latest updates, Microsoft has made it much easier to use Windows 8 just like Windows 7. You can boot straight to the old, familiar desktop and there’s even a start menu of sorts (we’ll explain how to get the old one back below). Plus, the new ‘Metro’ apps work much more like desktop apps, so if and when you’re ready to have a play with the new Windows, it’s much less jarring.
If your laptop or PC has a touchscreen, Windows 8’s new interface makes a lot more sense than trying to use it with a keyboard and mouse but, again, things are much better with the latest updates, which are free.
In this feature we'll show you how to make Windows 8 work exactly like Windows 7. The best part is that it needn't cost you a penny. Just a little time. See more Windows 8 tips.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Taming the tiger
With the Windows 8.1 update Microsoft has addressed some of the main concerns that users found so disconcerting. There is a half return of the Start menu, albeit with a heavy Windows 8 flavour, and revisions to the frustratingly underpowered default programs. In many ways though this just feels like a sticking plaster over the cracks of what still remains a confusingly schizophrenic environment. It seems that for a majority of people the new Start Menu and Modern UI apps are a distraction that they want to disappear rather than embrace. Thankfully this is actually quite easy to achieve. Take a look at our Winodws 8.1 review too.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Start menu
One way to make Windows 8 friendlier is to add the Start Menu back into proceedings. Microsoft seems reluctant to offer this function so soon after taking the huge decision to retire it, but that hasn't stopped some enterprising software developers creating their own solutions. Classic Shell is our favourite, as it offers multiple menu styles, user controllable features, and just works very nicely. Visit the developer's site and download the free app (you can of course make a donation, and if you like it we do encourage you to go back and do so), install it, and then you'll see that a blue and yellow shell has appeared in the left corner of the desktop taskbar.
Clicking this opens a window where you can customise how the Start Menu will look, behave, what happens when you press the Windows key, and even the option to boot directly into the Desktop environment. To enable this last feature go to the Basic Settings tab, scroll to the bottom, then ensure the Skip Metro screen box is ticked. If you do find you want to go back to the Modern UI, just right click on the Classic Shell Start Button, choose Settings, then untick the box. One other thing to do is to disable the Windows 8 touchpad gestures, otherwise they'll keep appearing whenever you accidentally drag your fingers in from the sides, causing confusion and annoyance. How you do this varies from machine to machine but usually you'll find the options in Control Panel>Hardware and Sound>Device and Printers>Mouse, then look for a tab that has options for a touchpad. It will most likely be the last one. In here you'll find tick boxes for each gesture, allowing you to keep the ones you want and discard the rest.
While we might have just replaced the menu and parts of the control interface, many of the default programs in Windows 8 are still set to the Microsoft Modern UI versions. Replacing them is no problem though, as we'll explore next.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Changing default programs
With Classic Shell installed all you need to do to change your default applications is click on the Start button>Default Programs>Associate a file type or protocol with a program. Then you can choose the file type - say .jpg - click Change Program, and select your preferred application. Sometimes you'll find that when you install new software it will request to become the default for the relevant files, saving you having to change it manually. (For a more detailed explanation click here).
Best free programs for Windows 8: Video
The Video app that comes with Windows 8 is decent enough, but for years now we've been huge fans of VLC Media Player. The list of video and audio formats that it can play is frankly ridiculous, and it has the added ability of being able to convert media from one format to another. It also plays DVDs, has deep controls for audio balancing, can enhance video with various effects, and will open broken or incomplete video files from torrent sites. The app is available from www.vlcapp.com and is often one of the first things that we put onto any new Windows machine.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Music
VLC Media player will handle pretty much any audio file that you throw at it, but it's not a great solution for managing a large music collection. While Xbox Music is a good looking and capable app, certainly one of our favourites from Microsoft, it's still optimised for touch and wants to sell you content. So if you want a desktop native alternative there are several worthy of consideration. Obviously iTunes is a hugely powerful option, and one that makes a lot of sense if you have an iOS device. It's somewhat cumbersome though and doesn't really play nice with Android. Spotify can integrate your music collection with its streaming catalogue, and Google Play Music will copy your music up to online servers (the first 20,000 songs are free) which you can stream or download to your mobile devices, but our current favourite is Media Monkey. Now on it's fourth major version, this music library manager is a fully featured media centre, with support for a wide range of audio and video formats, playlist capabilities, integrated podcast player, CD ripper, and best of all is compatible with many iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8 devices. There's a new beta version that is working out compatibility issues with the very latest Apple hardware, but for everything else it's an impressive piece of software.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Photos
When Windows 8 first arrived probably the most disappointing app was Photos. It certainly looked pretty, but was next to useless for even the most basic of editing. If you wanted to remove red-eye or crop an image then you had to send it to Paint, which is frankly ridiculous in this day and age. Thankfully there are many alternatives available, some of which are incredibly powerful. Paint.NET has been around for several years now and is a solid choice for those who want a basic image editor. If you're happy to store photos online then both Google's Picasa and Yahoo's Flickr are excellent options that offer simple editing, large free storage, and of course the ability to share with social media sites. Picasa isn't officially compatible with Windows 8 yet, but we know a fair few people who use it without issue, even so it might be wise to experiment first before committing to the program. For a fully featured editing suite there's always the GIMP which is an open-source Photoshop style application that's hugely powerful. To be honest it's complete overkill if you just want to do quick fixes, and the interface takes a little while to learn, but once you do it's an excellent manipulation suite that can create amazing results.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Browser
With more of our daily tasks moving online the choice of browser we use becomes increasingly significant. Admittedly Windows 8 arrives with not one but two versions of Internet Explorer, and while neither is particularly bad we're not overly keen on them either. Google's Chrome has quickly established itself as a fast and robust browser whose simple design does a good job of getting out of your way while you're surfing the web. If you use any of the Google services (and who doesn't?) then you'll find the seamless integration a boon. While Firefox might have slipped down the pecking order in recent years, we've found that its developers Mozilla have got their groove back with the last few updates and are glad to see the old favourite once again being fast and reliable. The various add-on features (including ad-blocker) are also very useful, as long as you don't use too many.
Having more than one browser on your system is actually a good idea from a security standpoint too. With Java and Flash exploits being among the most common attacks, it's useful to have both disabled on your primary browser. Setting up a secondary one with them working means that when you go to a site that requires either program you can simply switch browser, use the site, then shut it down again, minimizing the risk to your machine.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Email
The bundled Email app that comes with Windows 8 is stripped down and essentially designed for a tablet. As many users require a little more than this for correspondence there's really only one choice here and that's Thunderbird. Sure there are other clients available, not to mention many of the web-based services, but Thunderbird is powerful, complex without being complicated, and is as solid as a rock.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Calendar
For many of us our mobile technology is becoming the primary way to manage our calendars. Therefore it's essential that a service works across all platforms and devices. In this regard Google Calendar really is the way to go. You can have multiple calendars, sync with your partner's one so you know what each other are doing, and access it from anywhere.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Games
The Xbox games store in Windows 8 is beginning to fill out a bit more now, with titles like Cut the Rope, Halo Spartan Assault, and of course Minesweeper on offer. For a much wider choice, and desktop native interface, Steam is undoubtedly the top of the list. Run by Valve, the company behind both Half-Life and Portal franchises, it's an excellent source for new and older games. The best part is that the site regularly runs huge sales where you can pick up top titles for surprisingly little money. You'll need to check your system requirements to ensure each game works, but there's no doubt you'll find something to whet your appetite.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Office
Windows 8 comes complete with Notepad and Wordpad if you want to open documents or create basic text files. These are perfectly good apps for these purposes, but if you want more capabilities along the lines of Microsoft Office then LibreOffice is an excellent free solution. The suite contains powerful tools for creating documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, all in a familiar interface that Office users will feel at home with pretty quickly. It's a little slow at times, and advanced formatting can be problematic, but for most general uses its a great solution.
Best free programs for Windows 8: Home media centre
One of the uses our readers have for their PCs is creating home media centres. Microsoft has its own Windows Media Centre software, but it requires that you upgrade to Windows 8.1 Pro, currently around £99, or if you're on Pro already then it's a more affordable £6.99 upgrade. A very good free alternative is XBMC, which started out as a media player for the original Xbox but has grown into a multi-platform suite in it's own right. XBMC uses a large scale interface that's designed so you can see it from the other side of the room, handy for reading text on the sofa. It supports a wide variety of file formats for music, video, and photographs, plus there are also a number of add-ons that give you access to streamed content from the internet, or other media on devices connected to your network. It takes a little work to get it going, but the helpful forums and wiki at the XBMC site make this less daunting.