Microsoft's Windows 8 apps are a decidedly mixed bag so far. But one group of apps shows how the new environment can shine with the right software.
I haven't been too impressed with many of the apps Microsoft has created for Windows 8. Some, such as Music and Video, are designed mostly to get you to buy stuff from the company, offering only minimal support for playing your own songs and videos.
Others apps, such as Mail, People, and Messaging, aren't bad but still seem half-baked and in need of further refinements. Mail, for example, still doesn't support POP3 accounts. The People app throws all of your social-network contacts onto one single screen with no way to organize or separate them.
But there's one group of Windows 8 apps that Microsoft got just right. This group includes News, Weather, Sports, Finance, and Travel. Nicely designed, easy to use, and chock full of details, these apps show off Windows 8 at its best. Their purpose is to deliver the news and other updates, much of the info based on your own location and interests. And the apps do that quite well.
Drawing on information from Bing and other sources, all five apps work more or less the same way. Clicking on the Start screen tile displays the latest stories with nice visuals. The News app shows current news stories, the Weather app brings you the weather in your area, and the Finance app tells you what's going in with the stock market and economy.
From the opening screen, you can scroll to the right to view more information and visuals. For example, the News app breaks down additional news stories by category, while the Sports app reveals the scores and schedules for current season games.
Clicking on any headline, image, or other item displays the full story. So clicking on the scores to last night's Yankee game brings up a page where you can catch up on all the action. You can search for specific items in each app, such as the weather in Los Angeles or the latest stock price for Apple. Or you can simply wander around each app, discovering all that it offers but never feeling lost.
The apps also make good use of the app bar.
Right-click on any screen in any of the five apps, and icons appear on the bottom and top, giving you access to more features and locations. The app bar in the Travel app points you to pages where you can book a flight or reserve a hotel room. The Sport app's app bar displays links to different categories of sports, including baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. Each app bar also includes a Home button so you can quickly jump back to your starting point.
You can customize the information in each app based on your preferences. The Finance app lets you choose which stocks you want to follow and then add them to a special watch-list. The Weather app pinpoints your location to serve up the local weather, but you can also add other cities to watch.
Taking full advantage of Windows 8, each app can be set up as a live tile, displaying the latest headlines right on the Start screen. Some apps also let you create separate live tiles. Through the Weather app, you can create a live tile for each city you want to monitor. Through the Sports app, you can create a live tile to display the latest scores for your favorite team. And through the Finance app, you can create a live tile of your watch-list, displaying the latest prices of all the stocks you follow.
Beyond their usefulness, the apps are visually appealing, relying heavily on photographs. The Travel app displays amazing pictures and panoramas of cities around the world.
These apps all tap into the theme of conveying information. So it's natural for them to share a common look and feel.
But if Microsoft could apply the design savvy from these five programs to other Windows 8 software, users would face an easier time working with the mixed bag of new apps.