So far, you know the big-ticket items Microsoft has ripped out of Windows 8: the ‘Start’ button and menu subsystem. So what else is missing? Unfortunately for PC and laptop owners, there’s a very desktop flavour in the features Microsoft has removed, although we’ve done our best to round up a raft of very decent replacements that will do the job for free.
No-one’s using DVDs anymore, so there’s no point having DVD movie playback software — well, that’s the way Microsoft sees it at any rate. More to the point, the software giant doesn’t want to keep paying licence fees for the codec software required to play those DVDs, software it thinks people aren’t using. So you won’t find any bundled DVD playback capabilities in any version of Windows 8.
Thankfully, this is something we can easily fix. There are a number of free DVD playback options on the web including VLC Media Player, Media Player Classic and Media Player Classic – Home Cinema. Of the three, my personal preference is VLC as a DVD player — you don’t need any other plug-ins or files, it just works. The good news is that all of these options are free.
If you’re looking to cut costs and you’ve decided to ditch DVD playback, do you really need a media centre app? Clearly, that must have been the next question in the Windows 8 tearoom because Microsoft has pulled out its Media Center app.
Instead of ditching it altogether, it’s happy for you to still have it — at a price. Windows Media Center, along with DVD playback, will be part of the Media Center upgrade pack for Windows 8 Pro and the Windows 8 Pro Pack for Windows 8 standard. If you have a PC running Windows 8 Pro, Microsoft is currently offering the Windows 8 Media Center Pack for free for a limited time. If your PC is running Windows 8 standard, you can get Media Center by purchasing the Windows 8 Pro Pack for $69.99 for a limited time. Both these offers are valid from October 26, 2012, until January 31, 2013.
The good news is that the Windows world isn’t short of options in this area, some of which we highly recommend, whether you’re considering Windows 8 or not. XBMC was initially developed to run on hacked versions of the original Microsoft Xbox gaming console, but these days it runs on just about anything, including Android devices.
MediaPortal picks up where XBMC leaves off by including TV recording. NextPVR used to be called GB-PVR, a media centre app developed by New Zealander Graeme Blackley, and it’s also worth trying out. Best of all, all of these programs are free.
Windows DVD Maker
The slippery slope of multimedia feature removal that is Windows 8 has also claimed Windows DVD Maker — after all, if there’s no longer support for watching DVD movies, it stands to reason there’d be no reason to support making them. And really, if you do buy a system with an optical drive, the system provider should include a commercial package such as CyberLink PowerDVD or Producer, so the thinking goes.
Although not finalised at time of writing, it’s possible you’ll get this feature back as part of the Windows 8 Pro Pack for standard installs, or the Windows 8 Media Center Pack for Pro systems. Yep it’s confusing, but either way there’s no DVD Maker app in any release version.
If you want to create DVD movie discs with menus and the like, freeware options are a bit thin on the ground, unfortunately. DVDStyler is a good effort and if you want something quick and simple, DVDAuthorGUI might do, but neither of these options are as polished as commercial apps. If you’re prepared to throw some money around, CyberLink’s PowerDirector 10 Deluxe is already Windows 8 certified and it’ll cost you $90. Sony’s Movie Studio 11 Platinum will set you back $100, but there’s no word yet on its certification.
Technically, Windows 8 has an email client — the touch-enabled Mail app — but having used it, we think it’s going to leave desktop users scratching their heads and asking: ‘How do I drive this thing?’
The same issue that plagues the new touch-enabled interface — the lack of visual cues — also troubles Mail and while its premise of supporting online email such as Microsoft’s own Outlook.com and Google Gmail are great (you must start with a Microsoft account first), features aren’t clearly signposted. For example, writing an email and want to include an attachment? There’s nothing to tell you that you need to right-click on the screen and a menu option will pop up at the bottom showing ‘File Attachment’.
From a design viewpoint, Mail is slick, clean and bright. From a usability viewpoint, we think it’s a dud.
Given that Microsoft no longer includes a decent desktop email client, we have to look for one, but thankfully, again there is no shortage of options. Thunderbird should be your first port of call. It’s another of those ‘it just works’ apps.
If Thunderbird doesn’t float your boat, give Sylpheed a go. It’s a throwback to Outlook Express for looks, but don’t let that fool you — this is one very capable email client. And both options are free.
Not everything that’s missing is a loss, it has to be said, which is arguably the case with Windows Aero, the glassy transparency effect Microsoft brought in with Vista. While it offered a snazzy, liquidy look, it fell foul of laptop makers who found battery life fell through the floor as a result of it.
Aero requires the graphics processor to do power-expensive 3D gymnastics, which dropped the battery life of laptops down a couple of pegs. It’s not to say that 3D graphics processing is no longer required — the touch-enabled new user interface of Windows 8 relies on it — but it does bring the desktop back to a simple functional styling, which I have to say doesn’t look bad at all. You can also say bye-bye to the Flip 3D Windows key+Tab app cycler.
Backup and Restore
Microsoft has given Backup and Restore the boot, basically another app nobody used, apparently. In its place, the software giant has come up with an app called File History, which allows you to protect files in certain locations: ‘Libraries’, ‘Favorites’, ‘Contacts’ and ‘Desktop’ folders.
By default, it scans those folders every hour for changes and copies the changes to a separate location such as an external drive. If you have files in other folders you want backed up using File History, you either need to add them to an existing library or create a new one. It doesn’t replace Backup and Restore’s drive cloning features, though.
Technically, Windows 8 still comes with Backup and Restore — it’s just changed its name in ‘Control Panel’ to Windows 7 File Recovery. This is yet another app Microsoft says no-one used and would really like it if you didn’t use it either. It’s included only for those who require it as a legacy Windows 7 app. Microsoft says it won’t be upgrading it or adding any new features to it.
The replacement is Refresh and Reset. Refresh allows you to create and restore system images (of sorts); Reset, on the other hand, performs a complete from-scratch factory reset of your computer, just like you’d perform on your phone before giving it away or selling it.
Apart from big-name brand apps like Norton Ghost, the free Clonezilla may work, but we’re yet to test it in anger.
What about system tools?
The Windows 8 touch-enabled interface may well have replaced the ‘Start’ button/menu, but certain system tools are now considerably harder to find. For example, if you’re looking for Disk Cleanup, Disk Defragmenter or Task Scheduler, you won’t see them listed in the new user interface's All Apps menu (right-click on the Windows 8 interface and select ‘All Apps’ from the menu). However, they do exist. If you’re in the Windows 8 interface, use the auto-search function (just start typing) to search for disk defrag and you’ll find nothing. You have to type defrag and the app will appear in the search list. If you’re looking for Disk Cleanup, similarly type cleanup, but make sure you look at the ‘Settings’ search results down the right-hand menu. Windows 8 now splits its search results (goodness knows why), which means unless you’ve actually selected the right section — ‘Apps’, ‘Settings’ or ‘Files’ — you won’t see any results. And by the way, Disk Cleanup is now a setting, not an app. Go figure. Have we mentioned how much we miss the old ‘Start’ menu?