If you bought a new Windows laptop on Black Friday or received one as a gift, you may be struggling to figure out which apps to download. Never fear. I have scoured the internet, the Microsoft Store, and my own downloads folder to find all the best Windows apps for whatever purpose you may need.
You might be surprised how many online services you already use that have their own dedicated Windows app. I find that the main benefit of many Windows apps is to help mentally separate my life. It can get hard to navigate all of my various streaming services, work apps, chats, and social media using Chrome tabs — and it also puts me at greater risk of getting distracted.
There are also some services that are significantly better in app form than they are in browser form — and some that only exist in app form. We’ve got some of those here, too.
To help you search out the apps that work best for you, I’ve divided the 26 apps into separate categories. Take a look.
We’ve rounded up our favorite and most-used games, apps, and entertainment. Check out our app picks for iPhones, Android phones, Windows PCs, and M1-equipped Macs; our favorite mobile games from Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass; and our top choices for gaming PCs, the PS5, Xbox One and Series X / S, Nintendo Switch, and VR. We’ve also listed our favorite streaming shows on Disney Plus, Hulu, ESPN Plus, and Netflix; some great sci-fi books; and exciting new podcasts. (Note: pricing was accurate at the time of publishing but may change.)
Duolingo is a fun and easy way to pick up a new language with just a few minutes of practice a day. I started using it to brush up on my Chinese at the beginning of this year, and I’ve found it to be quite effective without taking a ton of time out of my day. It’s a nice break. The desktop app includes courses in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and more. You’ll start with basic phrases such as greetings and move on to more advanced exercises as you progress. And you can leave in the middle of lessons and come back to complete them later, which makes Duolingo ideal for learners with busy schedules.
If there’s an app that defines 2020, it must be Zoom. I use this service two or three times a day for work meetings, virtual events, or just chatting with friends. I have a pretty slow and unstable internet connection, but I always find meetings to be stable and easy to start up. (If you’re experiencing connectivity issues, turning off your video feed usually helps.) And there are all kinds of neat features to make it easier. You can customize your background picture, set personal notes on your chat profile, swap between portrait and landscape layouts, and more. Users on the free tier can host sessions of up to 100 participants capped at 40 minutes. For an annual fee starting at $149.90, you can add benefits like unlimited call time, cloud recording, and single sign-on.
Skype doesn’t have as many business-oriented features as Zoom does. But since it’s a Microsoft product, it has extra integrations with Windows 10. You can sign in with your Microsoft account and connect it with the company’s other software like OneDrive and Outlook. With Skype, you can add people as contacts and call them directly (you don’t need to send any links) as well as message them. Another neat trick: you can share files just by dragging and dropping them into the chat window.
Adobe Creative Cloud
The Creative Cloud apps you need will depend on the kind of work you’re doing and your budget. Photo editors can get Photoshop (the best-known photo manipulation software that’s widely used by professionals) and Lightroom (for image processing) for $9.99 per month. Amateur photographers can get the free Photoshop Express, which has all the features you need for basic image editing. Those who do video work can get the industry-leading Premiere Pro for $20.99 per month or the consumer-focused Premiere Elements for a one-time price of $69.99. You can own the entire Creative Suite for $52.99 per month, which includes over 20 desktop apps like Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere Rush, Audition, After Effects, Dreamweaver, and Acrobat Pro. You’ll want for nothing.
Paint has come a long way since you had to use it to draw stick figures in computer class. It’s easy to dismiss Paint 3D as crapware that came preloaded onto your Windows PC, but it’s actually one of the best-rated apps on the Microsoft Store. I use it for basic image work, and it has all of the tools I could ever need. Artists can use the free program to make 3D models in addition to 2D creations, with all kinds of textures, filters, and lighting options. And you can easily copy and paste 3D models into other Microsoft apps, including Word, PowerPoint, and Mixed Reality Viewer.
If you’re looking for a way to unwind on a Sunday afternoon, an audiobook might be just what you need. From the Windows Audible app, you can browse a huge selection of audiobooks and listen to them at your leisure. An Audible Plus membership starts at $7.95 per month and gives you access to “select audiobooks, Audible Originals, podcasts, and more,” while an Audible Premium Plus membership for $14.95 per month adds one title of your choice per month and a 30 percent discount on additional premium purchases.
If you don’t already use Spotify, you must know at least one person who does. Its Windows app is easy to navigate and gives you access to all kinds of recommendations and curated playlists. I’m not even a Spotify Premium subscriber (I’m an Apple Music loyalist), but I often pull up the Spotify Windows app just to see recommendations for new artists and songs. They’re usually good. Spotify Premium (which gets rid of ads and allows you to play music offline) costs $9.99 per month; there’s a three-month free trial period if you sign up this year.
If Spotify isn’t your thing, you might prefer Amazon Music Unlimited — especially if you’re a Prime subscriber. The service costs $7.99 per month for Prime members and $9.99 for non-Prime members.
If you’ve only heard of one video streaming service, it’s probably Netflix. Netflix is one of the most popular streaming services in the US and also one of the most popular apps on the Microsoft Store. You can use the app to quickly pull up TV shows and movies without having to navigate in a browser, and the service syncs across devices, so you can pause an episode on your PC and resume where you left off on your phone. A membership starts at $8.99 per month, and which plan you want depends on how many screens you want to watch on at the same time, and whether you want access to HD or Ultra HD.
If Hulu is more your speed, there’s a Windows app for that, too. Not only can you access some of the most popular TV shows like Seinfeld and This is Us, but you can also get live TV from over 65 channels and can add content from other services like HBO Max and Showtime for an extra cost. Plans start at $5.99 per month; there is also a bundle that includes Disney Plus and ESPN Plus for $12.99 per month.
Not a streaming service, but still quite useful, VLC is a free media player that can handle all kinds of formats. It’s like Windows Media Player, but significantly better. I’ve used VLC to watch a few different virtual meetings and presentations this year and found it more reliable and stable than using a browser. It includes some features to improve the viewing experience, including equalizer settings and presets for music playback. It can even pull content from DVDs and CDs.
I use the WhatsApp mobile app to chat with some of my friends, and I like to use the Windows app to keep up with those chats while I’m not near my phone. It’s very useful if you’re a WhatsApp user. You can see all of your conversations in one place, and they’ll sync up across devices.
There’s now a Facebook Messenger app for Windows that looks almost identical to the Messenger apps for iOS and Android. It’s missing some features of the web client — namely, voice and video calling. I use this app for one simple purpose: to keep my chats separate from my browser, where I’m trying to work, so I’m less prone to distraction.
Discord started out as a service for gamers, but the company has worked to expand it to more demographics this year. It’s more common than ever to see people using the service in business settings, fan communities, or just to chat with groups of friends. Not only does Discord provide text chat, but it’s also super easy to set up voice channels, which are convenient and generally stable. For a variety of additional features, you can subscribe to Nitro Classic for $4.99 a month or Nitro for $9.99 a month.
Slack is a must-have for many workplaces — especially teams that are partially or fully remote. But you don’t need to be a business user to enjoy Slack. Anyone can create a virtual workspace to chat and hang out, whether for your book club or your fantasy football league.
Yes, there is a Windows app for Instagram, and it’s actually much better than the browser client. Pretty much anything you can do with Instagram on your phone, you can do in the Windows app — whether it’s viewing photos and stories, reading and replying to DMs, or watching IGTV videos.
I really don’t want to pay for Microsoft 365, so instead, I use WPS Office. It’s quite similar to Microsoft 365 and can open and edit Office documents — except it’s completely free. The Suite includes Writer (Word), Spreadsheets (Excel), PDF Editor, and Presentation (PowerPoint), which can open nearly all Microsoft Office formats (including .docx, .ppt, and .xls, for example). They’re all quite good, and provide a similar experience to their Office competitors. WPS has some handy features of its own: for example, Writer allows you to keep multiple documents open in browser-esque tabs. I actually prefer that layout to Word’s setup — in fact, I would probably use WPS over Word even if it wasn’t free.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the stuff you need to do, Todoist can help you keep track. Widely praised as the best task-management program out there, Todoist allows you to create projects and tasks within those projects and assign them priority ratings, due dates and times, labels, and all kinds of other details. The bottom tier is free but doesn’t include some features you might want (such as the ability to comment on tasks and set reminders). A Premium subscription costs $36 per year.
Sticky Notes is about as simple an app as you can find, but it’s a great one to try out if you haven’t yet. I use it to write notes and reminders to myself and keep them hanging on the side of my screen, the same way you would with a Post-It.
Of course, if you need the gold standard for office work, you’re going to be looking at Microsoft 365. The subscription-based suite includes all the office tools you might be looking for, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote. Subscriptions start at $7 per month or $70 a year and come with a free terabyte of storage for all your creations.
Anyone who uses Dropbox for work or personal use can take advantage of its nice Windows app, which gives you a convenient way to view your photos and documents. You can also download and upload items in the app. You get 2GB of storage with the free plan; if you need additional space, the Plus version ($9.99 per month, billed annually) offers 2TB, along with a number of other features, such as smart sync and full text search. A Family plan for up to six users costs $16.99 per month.
Check out Google Drive for a cloud-based alternative to Dropbox. The free version of Google Drive gives you 15GB of storage. That’s going to be shared between all the stuff your account might have in various Google programs — Docs, Sheets, Photos, etc. — but it’s still a lot more storage than you get from Dropbox for free. (If you need more space, Google One offers 100GB for $2 / month or 200GB for $3 / month.) The nice thing about the Windows app is that it can sync your online files with your desktop automatically, so you can easily work offline and have backups if something goes awry.
Dolby Access allows you to run Dolby Atmos through your headset or headphones. I use it to customize my audio based on the task I’m doing (gaming, music, movie-watching, etc.) — and yes, you can hear the difference.
Your Phone allows you to connect your Windows PC to an Android device so that your PC can become an extension of the Android experience. You can get notifications, share your photos, make and pick up calls, and reply to text messages. You need to be running Android 7.0 or later to use this app.
Total PC Cleaner
This free utility does exactly what it says: it cleans up your PC. Run the program, and it will clear out your various caches, and dig up and remove large junk files. I like to run Total PC Cleaner and similar services every so often to free up storage. Sometimes it even boosts performance.
7-Zip / PeaZip
If you receive a file with an extension that you don’t know what to do with (such as .RAR), you may need a program like 7-Zip or PeaZip to open it. Both programs also compress files for you and allow you to password protect your files. PeaZip has a more modern-looking interface with some advanced features, while 7-Zip nails the basics and is a better option for general users.