8 great tools to improve Windows 8 and Windows 8.1

Fix up Windows 8 and 8.1 into the OSes they were meant to be

Classic Shell

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.

Classic Shell

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?

Classic Shell
Microsoft will restore the Start menu to Windows 10, but you can get it back now 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.

VLC Media Player
Play DVDs in Windows 8 without having to pay for the privilege thanks to VLC Media Player.

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.

XBMC Live

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.

XBMC Live
Watch and record live TV in Windows 8 with the help of XBMC Live and MediaPortal.

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.

Metro UI Tweaker
Don't like the new ribbon-based File Explorer? Metro UI Tweaker lets you ditch it.

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.