These free Windows 8 apps will help you and your business bootstrap your way to using Microsoft's new OS productively.
Microsoft recently bragged about the fast growth of its relatively new Windows Store for Windows 8 and Windows RT apps. The store has served up 250 million downloads since launch, according to the company, and 90% of the current catalog is downloaded at least once every month. "Apps momentum has been steady as the number of apps in the Windows Store has increased 6x since launch," said Microsoft chief marketing officer and CFO Tami Reller in a blog post. "Comparatively, that's already passed what iOS had in store, in its first year of app development."
It's safe to say the majority of the growth that Microsoft is touting is driven by free apps. There are more than 70,000 apps in the Windows Store, according to AppCounter; nearly 47,000 of them are free. (AppCounter itself is a free Windows 8 app that tracks Windows Store data.) In a recent two-week period, developers published roughly 450 apps per day.
"Free" sometimes comes with hidden costs. You could end up with unnecessary privacy or security risks. Overly intrusive adware is another concern with free downloads. You probably shouldn't bank on high levels of support and service from free apps. And if you get a little too app-happy because of the $0.00 price tag, you could end up with a cluttered device full of stuff you never use.
Note, too, that there are "free" apps that won't do you much good unless you have a paid account with the underlying platform. Citrix's ShareFile was quick to roll out a Windows 8 app, for instance, but if you're not a ShareFile user you won't get very far with the app.
Similarly, there are plenty of compelling "free" Windows 8 apps that are really just free trials for paid software, a distinction that's often glossed over. A website monitoring tool such as Appfail could be a good fit for Windows 8 users, but the "free" app in the store is a 30-day trial.
From a budget standpoint, though, genuinely free apps are tough to argue with. If you account for the potential downsides, it's okay to act on the temptation. I bought some Windows 8 apps while reviewing Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch Ultrabook, but I downloaded more free apps, because -- well, they're free.
For this review I went in search of free apps that I could either use myself or see as potential fits in corporate contexts, especially for small businesses and individuals procuring their own apps. Although free often feels easy -- it's just a click, after all -- I did run into the occasional headache in addition to the ones already mentioned.
A prime example: Apps for services I already used seemed like no-brainers, but in some instances I struggled to find a good reason to use the Windows 8 app instead of the desktop or Web interface. Exhibit A: Dropbox. Like many others, I use it regularly, usually in folder mode on my old Windows 7 laptop or via a native smartphone app. I've got no issues with the Windows 8 app -- I just found myself not needing it all that much, so you won't see it here. (This could be partly a function of my hardware; although the X1 Carbon is equipped with a touchscreen, it bears much more in common with a traditional laptop than a tablet or smartphone.)
I did include Microsoft's own SkyDrive service. I'm more likely to use this app in folder mode, too, but I like the Windows 8 app's design. I'm also a fan of SkyDrive's default integration in Office 2013.
The general goal here was to keep the list manageable, and eight's a fitting number when discussing Windows 8. Are these the only useful free apps? Of course not. Tell us about your own favorites -- or rejects, for that matter -- in the comments section below.
SkyDrive has slowly worked its way into my collection of backup apps since I first started using the service. In desktop mode I'll probably stick with the SkyDrive folder, but I do like the Windows 8 app when on the Start screen. It's likely a "must" backup and sharing app for SkyDrive users on tablets and other mobile devices where there is no folder mode.
If you need a crash course on how to use Windows 8, look no further. This cheat sheet for using the Windows 8 Start screen and Modern UI came in quite handy. It's a fast class in touch gestures and keyboard shortcuts for when you need to see all installed apps, rearrange or remove tiles, or modify app permissions, among other common tasks. Recommended for new Windows 8 users.
I use Skype regularly for work and personal communications, including voice, IM and videoconferencing. On a full-size laptop, I'll likely stick with the desktop Skype app, but the Windows 8 Skype app could be valuable on smaller gadgets, including tablets and some of the smaller hybrid or convertible laptops. One minor gripe: The Windows 8 app forces you to merge your Skype and Microsoft accounts.
Company Store is an open-source tool for creating and managing an internal app store. Administrators can serve up homegrown Windows 8 and Windows RT apps, third-party Windows Store apps, and links to internal and external Web applications. Customizations include the ability to brand the storefront with your company name. (Note: Microsoft doesn't support the storefront, so be prepared to manage it yourself.)
The free Twitter app begs the "Why do I need this?" question when compared to the desktop social media client or the Twitter website. I found myself drawn in, though, by the clean, elegant design. Social media marketers and Twitter junkies will want to at least check to see how their handles appear, as the design differs from the Twitter Web client. The app probably isn't something you'd want to rely on for managing multiple accounts, but it's a good free Windows 8 app for individuals. The natural brevity of Twitter is a strong fit for the Live Tile concept, too.
There are all manner of note-taking, productivity, task management and calendar tools these days. Tiles Reminder, however, takes advantage of the Modern UI concept to enable users to set a simple "note to self" as a Live Tile on the Start screen. The content is up to you, whether a reminder, to-do or even a Stuart Smalley-like daily affirmation. It's easy and makes good sense for the Live Tiles concept.
PC Monitor is a free remote IT management tool for up to five PCs or applications, which makes it nice fit for small, virtual groups on a tight budget. An accompanying PC agent -- also a free download -- is needed to monitor Windows, Mac and Linux computers. Note: PC Monitor is a freemium app, so if your needs grow, you'll likely need to pony up for a paid upgrade.
You probably don't really need AppCounter, an app that lets you keep tabs on what's hot and what's not in the Windows Store. But it's a compelling download, especially for anyone with a stake or interest in Microsoft and its entry into the app universe. AppCounter tracks key stats and the general progress of the Windows Store. For example, you can see app categories ranked by quantity. (Education is currently in the lead, followed by Entertainment, Books & Reference, Games, and Tools.) Is it the most productive app ever? Nah. But it's an interesting, quick scorecard for charting the Windows Store's growth.