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About two months ago I made a major change in my living room. For several years I had used a home theater computer (HTPC) to access all of our ripped DVD’s, music and digital photos. I did not use Windows Media Center for its primary focus, which is watching and recording live TV, so when the PC aged and began to slow down I decided to replace it with a cheaper alternative.

Instead of building a new HTPC I opted for a Google TV box. I got the same functionality I had been using Windows Media Center for thanks to the Plex server and app. However, many of our discs had been ripped as ISO files — a format that Google TV, even using Flex, can not handle. I needed to convert the files and options included MKV, MP4 and AVI. All would work, but I opted for MKV.

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Windows Media Player has been a part of the Microsoft operating system through quite a number of versions and it remains in place in Windows 8, almost as a relic from the past. But the app is still relevant, even on modern computers.  The software has quietly moved up to version 12, though it looks little different from the past few iterations.

Microsoft has not changed much in recent updates of the app and, in fact, has lost some functionality, given that the company removed DVD playback from the software — unless you pay the extra $20 for the Media Center Pack, which requires the Pro version of the operating system.

Otherwise, you will need to install a third-party app, such as the free VLC Player, which is my recommendation. But if you wish to pay, then grab something like Power DVD.

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There is no end to the amount of utilities that proclaim to “help” you out with your computer, by scanning files, cleaning things up and grabbing system information. Its an area of software that is fraught with danger, though. Many are unreputable and some even pop up messages warning you of danger to your system in an effort to prompt you to purchase them. Others simply either do not work or work a little too well, giving unknowledgeable users the opportunity to harm their own system by removing a file that Windows finds essential to run.

If you are careful, however, you can find some good utilities. Pay attention to reviews and what experts have to say and, when in doubt, simply avoid the software.

One of the better apps for gathering information about what is going on with your computer is called PC Hunter, which was recently updated to version 1.0.0.2.

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What can you do if you find yourself with access to only a wired internet connection, but need to get devices online wirelessly? With Virtual Router Plus you can easily transform your laptop into a wireless hotspot to do just this.

This is a great option if you are able to physically connect your laptop to a network, but also want to be able to get online with your tablet or iPod. Read on to find out to use this fantastic free tool.

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Like its predecessors, Windows 8 makes customization of the computer mostly easy and, where it lacks, third-party software makers have stepped up and filled in. There are multiple free and paid ways of adding the lost Start button and menu and making numerous other tweaks like adding tabs to Explorer and more. 

As for the desktop and lock screen, customers can use built-in functionality to change the background to any image they wish to use, but the Start screen has a limited number of options — users can only change the color and choose from a limited number of design options.

Enter Stardock. The company makes numerous affordable apps that customers can try and buy to make tweaks to almost every aspect of the Windows 8 operating system.

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Microsoft has been busy over the past few months, rolling out a lot of new updates. Windows 8 debuted in October of 2012, Office 2013, along with its companion Office 365 Home Premium, in early 2013, and numerous updates to other services as well. While both flagship products introduced many changes, some failed to address one pressing request from users.

The new Explorer for Windows 8 introduced the ribbon interface which has become a staple of Office and the new Office added a Start screen, which makes for easy launching of previously opened documents as well as access to templates and simple searching for additional ones.

Both new apps failed to address a feature that has been apart of web browsers for some time now — tabs. You can add this simple, but useful, feature to both through third-party apps, but it was something that Microsoft simply should have built in themselves.

Several options exist for adding tabs to Explorer, with my favorite being QTTabBar, but I have found only one suitable solution for Office and, if you are using 2013, then it is not free, but reasonably priced.

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For those who have a Windows Phone handset produced by Nokia, you likely are aware there is a Nokia suite of apps that the device maker has created specifically for its customers. The suite includes Music, Maps, Drive and Transit. Now the Finnish company is starting to make some of its apps available for Windows 8.

Previously, Nokia had supported Windows for backing up your phone via copying your contacts, calendar and photos from existing Nokia phones to the Microsoft SkyDrive service.

Recently Nokia Music rolled into the Windows Store with a brand new Metro, or Modern UI, style app that installs right to the new Windows 8 Start screen. The new app also will work on the Windows RT platform, which is the ARM-based version of the new operating system that powers such devices as the Surface tablet.

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How many times have you been sitting at your computer late at night and thought ‘just thirty more minutes’? The next thing you know it is 4:00am and you need to be up early for work. It could be that it is your monitor that is keeping you awake due to being too bright, and it could also be the source of eye strain, headaches and much more.

Had enough of feeling this way? f.lux is a great free tool that can be used to adapt the color of your monitor to suit the time of day.

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Microsoft’s Windows 8 update, which has been code named Windows “Blue”, has been outed to the world well ahead of the company’s planned release, which is rumored for August of this year. If you feel ambitious, then you can grab a copy and see what you think of the next Windows version.

In part one of this we looked at setting Windows Blue up using virtual software — in this case Virtual Box from Oracle — and the new settings options that are included, such as new colors and other options that have been built into the next Microsoft operating system.

Now, in part two, it is time to look at the new apps and software updates that have been built into Windows Blue, and if you think the setup and customization options were different, then you have not seen anything yet.

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If you have been perusing BitTorrent lately, and yes, there are legitimate reasons to do so, then you likely have noticed that some things have changed. The links are now displayed as magnets and require some additional software for downloading. Clicking one of those links prompts you to install a program called the Torch web browser.

At first glance, you likely will think this is just the  latest form of malware. You are right to be cautious, but in this case your fears are unfounded. Torch is simply a new kind of web browser, and there is nothing malicious about it.

“Torch Browser is based on the Chromium technology platform, giving it fast browsing capabilities. With Torch, you can share sites you like, download torrents, accelerate downloads and grab online media – all directly from the browser. Everything you need is a just click away with Torch, so you don’t have to use or download additional programs and tools”.

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