Whisper it quietly, but Windows 8 does not deserve all that wailing, gnashing of teeth and tearing at hair. There's a lot to like about it – particularly when you strip out the frankly awful Metro part of it. And with all the recent talk of Windows 10, we thought we'd take a look at how you can turn Microsoft's latest release into the OS it should have been.
So join us as we reveal the best free tools for smoothing the sharp edges of Windows 8 and 8.1 by restoring missing features and hiding the less palatable parts of Microsoft's brave, but failed experiment. Install these and you'll wonder what the fuss was about.
Restore the Start menu to Windows 8 with this essential tool.
The biggest mistake Microsoft made with Windows 8 was losing the Start menu. The Quick Access menu (press Windows key + X) just isn't the same, so why go without when you can get a perfectly functioning Start menu for free with Classic Shell?
Just remember to remove Classic Explorer and Classic IE9 during setup so only the Classic Start portion is installed – once it's in place, click the Start button on the Windows desktop to set it up. The end result is a perfectly functioning Start menu in the guise of Windows 7 or XP – whichever you prefer.
VLC Media Player
Play video DVDs (and just about any other video format) in Windows 8.
Windows 8 dropped support for DVD playback – apparently the licensing costs aren't economical with more and more people switching away from traditional platter-based movie watching. Codswallop says we, seeing as VLC Media Player lets you watch DVDs (and indeed just about any other video format you can throw at it) for free.
Once installed, just pop your DVD in the player and VLC Media Player will do the rest. One tip – make sure you choose Tools > Preferences > Video and set Deinterlacing to Automatic for the best quality picture.
Restore your PC's media centre functionality with this brilliant tool.
Missing Windows Media Center? No fear, XBMC Live (now known as Kodi) is the perfect replacement, providing you with a configurable and TV-friendly frontend for all your media: photos, video and music. You don't need to store your media locally either – if it's stored on a DLNA-compatible media server, then XBMC Live can access it too.
Better still, pair it with MediaPortal and a suitable TV tuner stick and you can also use XBMC Live to watch and record live TV, ensuring you don't miss out on any of the functionality taken away by those spoilsports at Microsoft.
Metro UI Tweaker
Tweak various Windows 8 settings to suit your personal taste.
Metro UI Tweaker helps tame Windows 8 in four ways: first, it allows you to disable the new Start screen if you really hate it, ensuring you'll always boot to the desktop. Conversely, if you're a fan of the Start screen, but missing certain functionality, then the app also allows you to add selected power options back to the Start screen as well as your choice of application or file.
Most of these features are redundant after changes made in Windows 8.1, but there's one final bonus: the app's ability to remove the ribbon from File Explorer – perfect for those who prefer the old way of browsing their files and folders.
Give the Windows Task Manager a shot in the arm with this powerful tool.
Windows 8's Task Manager is a vast improvement on what went before – click More Details to access its full gamut of features. But if you want to go even further, then System Explorer is the perfect complementary tool, filling in gaps still missing from Task Manager.
One of its best features is the ability to run a security scan of individual processes or all running tasks, comparing them with an online database to verify you've not been compromised. It also colour-codes intensive processes, helping you identify resource hogs more quickly, and consolidates tools and options spread out over multiple tabs in Task Manager in a more user-friendly environment.
Frustrated with Windows Search? Listary puts all your files at your fingertips.
The built-in Windows search tool has never really inspired, but Windows 8 managed to go backwards, removing the unified search tool in favour of a category-based option. Five minutes with Listary, however, and you'll never look back. It works with File Explorer and any program's Open/Save dialogue, placing a handy – but discreet – search bar at the bottom.
Simply type what you're looking for into here and Listary will find matches across all your drives breathtakingly quickly. It's also packed with other time-saving features, like the ability to switch an Open/Save dialog to the folder you've currently got open in Windows. And with access to Favourite folders and past searches, what's not to like?
Keep files in sync across two directories – just like Briefcase (but better).
It had its flaws, but the Windows Briefcase could be useful at times, particularly in a pre-network age when keeping two folders in sync could be tricky. The Briefcase has been dropped from Windows 8, and while you can restore it with a Registry tweak, it doesn't work as it should.
Thankfully there's a better alternative: FreeFileSync makes the whole process of file and folder synchronisation much easier. It works with USB thumb drives as well as over the network, can copy locked files and automatically detects moved and renamed files and folders for hassle-free sync. It'll even allow you to store older versions of files you've updated (or deleted), just in case you need them.
Don't leave your old programs behind with this virtual machine.
Windows 8 drops the compatibility XP Mode found in Windows 7 Pro, which allowed users to run older apps and hardware in a virtual instance of XP if they refused to play ball in Windows 7. Thankfully, VirtualBox gives you this functionality – and then some – in all versions of Windows 8.
It lets you install an older version of Windows (anything from 98 to Windows 7), meaning it's more flexible than XP Mode. All you have to do supply your own copy of the older version of Windows and your old favourite apps will be accessible once more.