Monday, 13 April 2015

The Best Of Windows 8 App Store

Windows 8 App Store

Don't let the concept of an app store scare you away, says Keir Thomas, who looks at 10 gems to be found in Windows 8's offering

The idea of a centralised store where apps can be bought is entirely logical but is simultaneously one that die-hard PC users have a hard time swallowing. On tablets and phones it just about makes sense, but on a desktop or laptop we still expect to install from DVD or via downloads. It's about feeling in control.

Perhaps because of this, Microsoft was wise enough not to make the Windows Store within Windows 8 the only method of software installation, but Redmond has certainly invested a lot of time and effort into making it an effective means of adding software to your system. Even if many people who use Windows 8 aren't aware it exists, it's surely shunned only by the most ignorant.

The reality is that app stores have hefty benefits for end users. For example, once you've bought an app it's always available for download. Should your hard disk go kaput or if you switch to a new computer, then reinstalling is just a matter of visiting the app store and clicking the Install button. No more hunting for installation disks or exploring websites. Then there's the fact that updates to the apps are automatically delivered via the app store too.

From a security viewpoint the app store learns from the dark past. Apps are manually inspected before they're made available, and usually a stipulation is that they must run in a sandboxed environment - a method of hiving off the app so it doesn't even know the rest of the system exists, so therefore can't hack it. Apps usually have to ask permission of the user to access hardware or software features, such as the webcam or even run in the background.

This week we take a look at a handful of gems in the Windows Store for Windows 8.1, and in coming weeks will look in-depth at the other app stores: Google Chrome OS, Apple Mac, and Linux.

Windows Store apps have a unique look and feel, usually designed to at least accommodate touch controls in addition to a mouse cursor. This might give the feel of patronising simplicity, but the fact is that there's a lot to enjoy and some surprising power user tools - as we show below. All the apps are free, too.

Notepad 8

The venerable Notepad app has been around since Windows counted in 16-bits but wasn't one of the apps selected to be converted into the new Metro-style interface (although its more sophisticated brethren WordPad received the honour -provided you're not using a Windows RT device, where it's inexplicably absent).

Enter Notepad 8, which brings basic text editing and viewing into the 20th century. It saves files in your Documents folder and - sacrilege - lets you add in bold, italics and different text colours. This is done by via the app toolbar, which appears at the bottom of the screen. However, you still can't change the font or do things like place pictures, so don't go getting any wild ideas. Pin Notepad 8 to your desktop taskbar and you've a cross-interface editor that's always available at a single click, regardless of whether you're working in the Metro environment or on the desktop.

Fresh Paint

Notepad 8 keeps things traditional but Fresh Paint takes the Paint app that's also been in Windows since the early days and brings it bang up to date. While we talk of brushes in the older app, in Fresh Paint you really do get to use watercolour and oil paint brushes, and what you apply to the canvas has the same properties as the real-life equivalents. Thus, oil paint has a faint texture to it, while watercolours can be applied several times in the same spot to increase the saturation. All tools are accessed by a pull-down palette at the top of the screen, and you also get pencil tools along with crayons.

You can import your own pictures to paint over, and a lovely touch is the 'Inspire Me' feature that integrates with Bing to let you search the web for images before converting them to outlines or washed out colours in order to paint over. You can also purchase pictures from Disney and the like - ideal for kids who want to colour in.

This is a Microsoft app and a superb example of the kind of thing the resurgent software company is capable of nowadays.


Other operating systems have embraced Wikipedia, particularly those from a certain fruit-themed manufacturer, but Microsoft remains strangely aloof. Coming to the rescue is this official app from Wikipedia, which primarily formats Wikipedia articles for viewing in a Metro-style app.

It opens to the same Featured headings that you see on the front page of Wikipedia, such as Featured Articles, Featured Pictures and On This Day. A search field at the top right lets you quickly find what you're looking for. Open an article and you'll be shown columns of text (three on our laptop screen), and each section heading has an Edit button alongside. We assume this should provide the ability to edit - a key feature of Wikipedia, after all - but it didn't do anything on our test setup. Clicking the minus icon at the bottom right reduces the page to a series of headers, allowing quick browsing.

Bring up the app toolbar and you can instantly switch to viewing the article in a different language, open it in a browser or pin it to the app's home screen for quick access in future should you require it. The usual Windows 8 sharing tools mean you can also instantly pass the article's contents to an email or message.

Missing are tools to alter the text size or style, which is odd, but for stylish and fuss-free browsing of Wikipedia this app is certainly worth installing.

Book Bazaar Reader

eBook readers are nothing new and Book Bazaar Reader's features are, on the surface, pretty ordinary. It lets you read ePub, PDF, HTML and text files, for example, and involves niceties such as the ability to add bookmarks and highlight text while reading (the latter achieved by clicking and holding the page). You can vary the font and the page colour (including switching to a night setting), and use speech synthesis to read the book automatically (via the built-in Windows 8 voices). The app toolbar provides access to a search tool, as well as the ability to temporarily zoom into the text.

Where Book Bazaar Reader proves its mettle, however, is accessing online catalogues of free eBooks. You can tune straight into Gutenberg, for example, and not only search for books but download them direct into your library and start reading within seconds. We didn't count the number of book sources but they were certainly into the double digits and, of course, you can import any file you download manually too.

The app is free but supported by adverts practically everywhere. Crucially, these don't appear when you're reading an eBook. If they really irk you then $5 will get rid of them for a year, while $10 will lose them forever.

There can be little doubt that apps like Amazon Kindle, also available for Windows 8, provide a smoother reading experience, but for the ability to explore literary classics as well as contemporary material on sites like Smashwords, Book Bazaar Reader comes strongly recommended.

Toolbox For Windows 8

When an app ecosystem is essentially bolted onto a desktop OS there's always a risk that software developers will merely mimic existing software, rather than innovate within the freedoms offered by a new platform. Toolbox for Windows 8 definitely takes the latter route, and is unlike anything we've seen before. Even explaining it is a little tricky, but we'll give it a go: it's essentially 15 mini-apps in one, and you can run up to six of them simultaneously on screen at the same time in a grid arrangement (which is similar to Windows 8's own Snap feature).

The apps include a simple paint tool, Twitter and Facebook clients, a calendar, a task manager, a stopwatch, a calculator, web browser, RSS news reader and more besides. You might choose to make voice notes while researching on a particular website, for example or update your task list while seeing what days you're free via the calendar.

None of this would be worth much if the app wasn't well designed or easy to use, and Toolbox ticks those boxes too. The boundaries between each mini-app can be resized by clicking and dragging, and bringing up the app toolbar shows several readymade grid layouts that you can choose.

Alas, part of the screen is obscured by an advert and $3 is required to remove it. This might be worth a punt if you find Toolbox useful.


Software for Windows tends to come into existence organically. For example, when PDF was invented there was the need for a viewer app. Therefore, PDF readers were created. It never occurred to the developers to do more than offer a reader app, because they were simply responding to a need.

The beauty of the smartphone and tablet revolution is that software developers can look at things afresh, and that's how we end up with beautiful apps like Binder. In the old language, Binder is a document viewer and organiser. That's almost an insult to the utility it offers, though, which is to compile your study materials into collections and allow you to annotate on them in various ways (everything from highlighting passages to drawing on the page).

Again, none of this is new - many eBook readers have similar features to these - but in the world of tablets and mobile it's all about how useful an app can be. This app syncs in the cloud automatically, for example, so you can access your documents at the Binder website or on another device on which you install the app (and it's available for most platforms).

The app is free and without adverts too, although it's apparently part of a learning software suite that encourages you to purchase study materials. You simply wouldn't know this unless you look for it, though, and for anybody who's involved in learning or simply has a lot of documents to manage on similar themes should consider Binder a mandatory installation.


Creative writing has never been as popular and it seems everybody is writing a novel nowadays. Simply.Write is typical of a new breed of word processors that aim to help the creative process by removing all distractions, and showing only a blank page - just like a typewriter. They also trim out intrusive features so that you're not having to wrestle with an over-attentive autocorrect, for example. In fact, there's only two controls within Simply.Write and they affect what you see - you can alter the font size, and the width of the text box into which you type. Both are altered via the Settings charm.

Whatever you choose means little to the eventual document, because Simply.Write can only output plain text documents. The styling of your document will have to come later via a dedicated word processor or layout app. Bringing up the app toolbar lets you save and open documents, but here Simply.Write will also show messages of encouragement at the top of the screen to keep you going.

There's not much more we can say about this app but that's kinda the point, and if you truly want a typewriter-like experience then it comes recommended.

Data Usage

A knee-jerk reaction by hardened PC users is that all apps are necessarily simplistic. This is half true. The app interface is certainly simple compared to days of old, but the app itself can be as sophisticated or complex as it needs to be. Data Usage is an excellent example. Once installed it asks for permissions to run in the background, where it monitors data input and output. In the app itself you can set a billing date and monthly data allowance, and remaining data for the period is shown in a table along with at-a-glance daily figures. Total upload and download for the period is also shown on a line graph, plotted day by day, and you can also view a pie chart in order to quickly access uploaded vs downloaded data. Data can be exported for use in other apps or perhaps to sent to your ISP to show that you didn't after all exceed your allotted allowance this month. You can track all the interfaces of your device separately, so can track wi-fi independently of Ethernet if you need to.

The concept of apps acting as a dashboard is perhaps one that's underexploited, but again shows the unique utility of apps to fit into a desktop user's daily life.

Terminal RT

As its name suggests. Terminal RT is a fully functional SSH client - finally, no more need to use PuTTY! - that runs as a Windows 8 Metro-style app. Running full screen, as apps do, really does provide an authentic terminal-like experience - but other than this Terminal RT is as basic yet functional as is required.

You can create multiple server profiles (both Telnet and SSH), which can be accessed concurrently, and authentication can be via password or private key file. Text size can be modified via the app toolbar (large or small), but that's about all we can find to say about this app. It does what it says on the tin, and does it well. It's supported by always visible banner ads but these can be removed for £2.49.


With the new interface guidelines enforced by apps, developers have been forced to think creatively about how they go about their business, and TouchMail is an example of what can happen. In terms of basic functions this is an email app like any other - you can receive, view and send mails. However, each message is shown as a tile, in a similar manner to Windows 8's own Start tile system.

A zoom button at the bottom lets you enlarge or shrink the tiles and larger tiles shown excerpts from the messages, while smaller tiles are thumbnails that let you spot patterns - you can see instantly how many times a particular person or organisation has emailed you recently. Viewing or composing an email causes a window to slide in from the right of the screen, and emails can be deleted or archived by dragging them up and down.

Although designed for a touch interface, as the app's name suggests, it nonetheless works extremely well with a mouse as well. For those who have touchscreen devices that they also use with a pointing device then it offers the best of both worlds.

TouchMail really is a clever app that rethinks how we deal with email by exploiting the interface’s strong points.