If you’ve had the opportunity to tool around Microsoft’s new Windows 8, you know that it’s not at all like any version of Windows you’ve ever seen before. Windows 8 is built around the concept of touch-operated full-screen apps, with traditional desktop programs reluctantly relegated to subsidiary status.
To take full advantage of Windows 8, then, you have to get to know—and learn to love—the new full-screen Windows 8 apps. That means learning where to find them, how to download them, and how to use them. For all our sakes, Microsoft tries to make all this as painless as possible.
Understanding Windows 8 Apps
First there was Metro. That’s what Microsoft called its new-style apps during the testing phases of Windows 8. The new apps, designed to run full-screen and be operated with your fingers instead of a mouse, were called Metro apps, running in what was then called the Metro interface.
So Windows 8 was all about Metro—until it wasn’t. Just before Windows 8 officially hit the street, Microsoft reversed course and said that these new apps weren’t to be called Metro apps after all. (There apparently was some sort of potential legal action threatened by another company that used the “metro” name.) For a short while Microsoft re-dubbed the Metro apps as Modern apps, but that didn’t stick for long, either.
Officially, Microsoft now calls these new-style apps Windows Store apps. That’s not very catchy; I prefer to call them Windows 8 apps, or full-screen apps. But don’t be surprised if somebody (but never Microsoft!) slips and calls them Metro apps. You’ll understand.
In any case, a Windows 8 app is an application designed specifically for Windows 8, as you might suspect. That means you can’t run Windows 8 apps on a Windows 7 PC, or on a computer running Windows Vista or XP. You can only run Windows 8 apps in Windows 8. Period.
What you get with a Windows 8 app is some sort of application or game that runs full-screen, and can be operated with touch gestures—if you have a touchscreen PC, that is. Otherwise, you can still use your mouse and keyboard to do what you need to do.
A typical Windows 8 app is designed for full-screen viewing, typically on smaller screen devices. That typically means extra-large text and images, not a lot of fine print, and a screen that looks like it would be right at home on a tablet or smartphone. Most apps tend to be single-purpose utilities, not full-featured programs like you’re used to using on your computer. They’re more like smartphone apps.
To see what we’re talking about, check out some of the full-screen apps that come pre-installed with Windows 8. For example, the Weather app displays current weather conditions across the entire screen; scroll right to view weather forecasts and additional information. Likewise, the News app displays one main story on the main screen; scroll right to read additional news stories, organized by category.
Figure 1 The Windows 8 Weather app
My main complaint about Windows 8 apps is that they waste a lot of space, at least on PCs with larger displays. Just look at the News app, for example, where the entire first screen is devoted to just a single story—and not even the full story, at that, just a big picture and the headline. You have to click that to read the actual story. I’m used to tiling multiple windows onscreen, each densely packed with information. The Windows 8 approach of displaying just one thing at a time onscreen seems wasteful to me.
Figure 2 The main screen of the Windows 8 News app-one really big story
That said, it’s easy enough to understand that Windows 8 apps are simple, single-purpose utilities that look and feel as if they’re tailor-made for the new full-screen interface in Windows 8. There are tens of thousands of these apps available, from Microsoft and various third parties, and you can fill up your Start screen with them if you like.
Shopping for Apps in the Windows Store
So you get a few of these new apps pre-installed with Windows 8; where do you find new Windows 8 apps? It’s simple. All you have to do is visit Microsoft’s new Windows Store.
The Windows Store is Microsoft’s attempt to replicate Apple’s App Store. If you want new apps for your iPhone or iPad, you have to go to the App Store. Likewise, if you want new apps for your Windows 8 PC, you have to go to the Windows Store. Same concept.
It’s also the same financial model. While a lot of Windows 8 apps are free, not all are. And those that cost money to buy are where Microsoft makes its money, by taking a cut of all Windows Store transactions—the same way Apple takes a cut of very iPhone/iPad app you purchase from its App Store. (And Google does the same with Android apps in the Google Play store.) Apple has generated more than a half billion dollars in pretty much pure profit from its App Store sales, so Microsoft obviously would like to generate similar sales from its Windows Store.
Anyway, it’s fairly easy to find new apps in the Windows Store. You launch the Store by clicking or tapping the Store tile on the Windows 8 Start screen. (There’s no other way to get into the store; you can’t use your web browser, or any computer not running Windows 8.)
Figure 3 Click the Store tile on the Start screen to enter the Windows Store
Once in, you see a screen of Spotlight apps; these are apps that Microsoft would like you to buy, probably because they’ve been promoted by their creators. You can click any app tile to go directly to that app’s page, or click the Spotlight header to view all Spotlight apps.
Figure 4 Spotlight apps in the Windows Store
Scroll right to view more apps, organized by category: Games, Social, Entertainment, Photo, Music & Video, Sports, Books & Reference, News & Weather, Health & Fitness, Food & Dining, Lifestyle, Shopping, Travel, Finance, Productivity, Tools, Security, Business, Education, and Government. For each category, you can click a tile to view Top Paid, Top Free, or New Releases. To view all the apps in that category, click the category header.
You can also search for specific apps by using Windows 8’s built-in search function. Press Win+Q to display the Search pane; enter the name of an app, press Enter, and then choose from the matching apps.
Figure 5 Searching for specific apps in the Windows Store
Once you find an app you like, click its tile. This opens that app’s page, where you can learn more about the app. Click a tab on the right to view the app’s Overview, Details, or Reviews. You can also see the app’s star ratings (out of five possible stars) at the top of the left part of the page.
Figure 6 Learning more about an app from its page in the Windows Store
If you like what you see, it’s time to download the app. This is easy enough when it’s a free app; just click the Install button and everything else happens automatically. If it’s a paid app, you’ll need to click the Buy button and follow the onscreen instructions to pay for it. Most paid apps are priced $5 or less, and many have a “try before you buy” feature, which you can do by clicking the Try button.
Figure 7 Getting ready to purchase-or just try—a paid app
Once the installation is complete, a new tile for this app appears on the Windows Start screen. Click or tap the tile to launch the app.
Updating Installed Apps
Windows 8 apps are a lot like iPhone or iPad apps, in that developer tend to keep their apps updated on a regular basis. That could be simple bug fixes, or it could mean the addition of new features or functionality. In any case, it’s a good thing; it’s also nice to have the latest and greatest version of any app you’re using.
The other good thing about these app updates is that they’re free. You pay once for an app and get later updates at no charge. Nothing wrong with that.
The only think I don’t like about these app updates is that they’re not automatic. That is, you have to manually go back to the Windows Store and choose to update those apps with updates available.
How do you know when an app needs updating? The first clue is to look at the Store tile on the Windows Start page. If there are any updates available, you’ll see a number on the tile that reflects how many apps need updating. For example, if you see a “3” on the Store tile, you know that you have three apps with updates waiting.
To update one or more apps, you have to click the Store tile to open the Windows Store. Once you’re in the Store, look for an unobtrusive notice in the upper right corner of the screen. Click this “Updates” notice to display the App Updates screen, which lists those apps that need updated. Check the apps you want to update (you don’t have to update them all) then click the Install button. The rest, finally, happens automatically.
Figure 8 Updating Windows 8 apps from the Windows Store
Tips for Using Windows 8 Apps
That’s how you find, install, and update Windows 8 apps. Now for a few tips on how to use the darned things.
- To search within a Windows 8 app, press Win+Q.
- To configure relevant settings for a Windows 8 app, display the Options bar by right-clicking anywhere within the app.
- To print from a Windows 8 app, press Win+C to display the Charms bar, then click Devices. Select your printer from the list, then proceed from there.
- To email a page from a Windows 8 app, press Win+C to display the Charms bar, then click Share. Click Mail, then proceed from there.
- Windows 8 apps don’t have to run full-screen; you can arrange two apps side-by-side, by “snapping” them together. To snap with your mouse, make sure the first app is open then mouse over the top left corner to display the tiles of all running apps. Click and drag the app you want to snap to the right; it becomes a large thumbnail. Drag it all the way to the right side of the screen and when you see gray vertical separator bar appear, release the mouse button. This snaps the new app to the right of the current app. You can then drag that vertical separator left or right to resize the two snapped apps; drag it all the way to one side to unsnap the apps and leave one app fullscreen. (BTW, the Windows 8 Desktop can be one of the snapped apps; also interesting is the fact that some Windows 8 apps adapt to snap mode and rearrange their data accordingly.)
- Microsoft says you don’t have to close Windows 8 apps when you’re done using them; if they’re not being used, they stay “paused” without using system resources. Fine and dandy, but too many open apps, even if they’re paused, makes it more difficult to switch between them. If you’re old fashioned, like me, and like to tidy things up when you’re done with them, you can close any Windows 8 app by using your mouse (or finger, on a touchscreen display) to click and drag the top of the screen down to the bottom.
Figure 9 The Charms bar in a Windows 8 app
Figure 10 The Windows 8 Calendar and Weather apps "snapped" together on a single screen
These full-screen Windows 8 apps are definitely a different type of beast than the traditional software programs you’ve been used to running for the past two decades or so. They take some getting used to—so have fun playing with them!