App review: ModernMix for Windows 8

On Wednesday, Stardock – the king of customization when it comes to Windows – released an interesting new application known as ModernMix, letting you run Windows Store apps in a windowed environment on the desktop. I typically shy away from applications which attempt to significantly change or undo standard OS interaction models, but ModernMix is actually kind of useful – at least, in a very small number of scenarios.

I’m not usually one to review things that are in a pre-release state, but with ModernMix currently sitting at version 0.95 with a $4.99 price tag and a surprisingly polished state, I decided to make an exception. While some last-remaining bugs will probably be stamped out before the official as-yet-unknown release date, I don’t expect it to change all that much between now and then.

Windows 8’s application model is very different from past versions of the OS, due in large part to the curated app store and the fullscreen interaction experience. This works extremely well on a tablet, and as I noted in my review of the OS, I found it perfectly fine on a desktop or laptop as well. There is a segment of users, however, who disagree vehemently, preferring the traditional desktop in all cases and longing for the return of the old Start menu. It is for these people that Stardock developed ModernMix.

ModernMix, available for Windows 8 – but not Windows RT, obviously – lets you switch between a fullscreen and windowed app experience on the fly. In windowed mode, apps act just like any other application on Windows 7 or Windows 8, complete with pinnable taskbar icons, resizable and minimizable windows, the ability to explicitly close apps with the close button. This also has the added benefit of letting you run as many Windows Store apps on as many displays as you want. For the aforementioned group of people resisting change, this is likely a breath of fresh air. But is the application worth it for most people?

Personally, I would have no interest in ModernMix were it not for my somewhat strange computing setup. Over the years, I’ve become vary reliant on using multiple monitors with my desktop PC. The primary display is the largest, and it’s where I perform the majority of the tasks on my computer, from writing or coding to playing games, watching videos, and browsing the internet. The secondary display is dedicated to Outlook, OneNote, social networks (Facebook.com, MetroTwit/Tweetro+, etc.), and IM clients like Skype.

The primary display, however, is also connected to my Xbox 360 and PS3. So when it’s time to start gaming, I move the web browser and anything else I might need over to the secondary display, allowing me to continue using the computer while playing a console game. The problem is that Windows 8 only displays notifications on the primary display, so it’s easy to miss an incoming email or IM unless I’m using the desktop versions of these applications. Worse, my secondary display runs at 1920 x 1200, which is a decent resolution but not quite wide enough to support Windows 8’s Snap feature. As a result, I can’t run a Windows Store app like Feed Reader or Tweetro+ without completely obscuring the desktop, which needs to be visible if I don’t want to miss an incoming notification. This is admittedly a rare use case, but ModernMix solves this problem.

The design of ModernMix is simple, but it works quite well. You won’t notice much of a difference right after you install the application, aside from a small icon (known as the control overlay) in the upper-right corner of every Windows Store app. Selecting this icon instantly switches the app from fullscreen to windowed mode and places an icon on the taskbar. Stardock has strangely chosen to disable the animated flip that is seen whenever you launch a fullscreen application, but this is easily reversed in the settings. Here, you’ll also find a number of other nice tweaks like the ability to disable the control overlay (something I’d recommend if you want a pure experience), change the hotkey for switching modes (F10 by default), and decide whether or not fullscreen apps should be shown on the taskbar.  ModernMix also lets you choose how apps should appear when they are launched from either the Start menu or the Windows desktop. This granularity of control is app-specific by default, so it will remember the last used state for each app.

Stardock has done a great job making this x86 application as bug-free as possible, even in a pre-release state. The only glitches I’ve noticed thus far are that some apps like the Windows Store default to vertical – rather than horizontal – scrolling if the window is too small, you can’t use the WinKey+Shift+ArrowKey to switch the app to a different display, and that the close animation for apps on secondary displays has strangely disappeared. Using the Charms can occasionally be difficult when the app is on the desktop, but you just have to make sure the focus is always on the app in question. Additionally, due to the nature of ModernMix, it’s possible to have an app remember that it was last used on a secondary display when you switch back to fullscreen, even if you already have an app snapped on the primary display. This leads to some OS confusion, but bringing up the Start screen quickly returns all of the apps to the same display, as Microsoft originally intended.

I’ve been using ModernMix for a couple of days now, and it’s been nice to have Tweetro+ running on the desktop while I’m playing a game, allowing me to stay up-to-date on everything that’s going on. However, while it’s nice to be able to occasionally switch between modes with F10, I’ve found that I still use the default fullscreen experience 99% of the time. ModernMix only supports Intel processors, so you won’t be able to run it on tablets like the Microsoft Surface RT or ASUS VivoTab RT. And yet, I wouldn’t recommend it on this type of device anyway, since tablets are designed for fullscreen apps. ModernMix is good for a small segment of users who prefer the old Windows desktop – or people with a use case similar to mine – but it’s not for everyone. As soon as I can get notifications on a second display (and get a new monitor that supports Snap), I won’t hesitate to return to vanilla Windows 8. But for now, ModernMix is kind of useful.

Download: ModernMix (Stardock)

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William Devereux

William Devereux is the former Microsoft editor at Pocketables, as well as a Microsoft MVP and SkyDrive/Outlook.com Insider. As his title implies, he wrote about all things from Redmond, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone. He is currently carrying a Windows Phone 8X by HTC and a Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.