The Windows 7 Start menu is a launch pad for productivity and a compass for navigating your programs and files. Starting with Windows 95, the Start button has been a fixture on Windows desktops, and the associated Start menu has evolved into a full-featured searchable menu system.
The Start menu remained relatively unchanged until Windows Vista, which introduced a highly visible redesign. The Windows 7 Start menu shares some common features with Windows Vista, but includes a number of subtle changes to make it easier to use.
Without the Start menu, the Windows desktop would serve as a shoddy springboard for Quick Launch applications, and you'd navigate a computer almost exclusively through Windows Explorer.
If you have experience negotiating the complex, labyrinthine hierarchy of the Windows file system, you will surely appreciate the convenience of the Start menu's compact browsing structure.
And if you just cannot stand a cluttered desktop, the Start menu is a great way to return desktop real estate to its owner.
Significant Changes and Differences
The right pane of the Start menu, shown in Figure 1, includes links to other parts of Windows you're likely to use frequently, such as the user's personal folder, the Documents library, Pictures library, and so on. However, a number of shortcuts didn't make it into Windows 7 from Vista.
Figure 1 The Windows 7 Start menu
For example, the Internet and E-mail shortcuts no longer appear at the top of the Start menu. (The Internet Explorer icon appears on the taskbar, though.)
Microsoft lets you choose which e-mail client (and other programs) you want to use by default. Just open Control Panel and navigate to Programs, Default Programs, Set Your Default Programs.
From there, you can specify which programs to use for e-mail, web browsing, searches, digital media playback, and more. (You must install one or more e-mail clients for them to appear in the Programs list.)
Or search for Mail or Internet options in the Control Panel Search box for quick access.
Also missing by default from the Start menu's right-hand pane are Recent Items, Connect To, and Network entries. As an alternative to Recent Items, Windows 7 offers Start menu Jump Lists, marking a shift from general-purpose to application-specific shortcut navigation.
Instead of a combined list of recently used items, you now have recently used items for specific programs, made accessible by an arrow icon next to the program entry on the Start menu.
Microsoft includes some prepopulated Jump Lists in Windows 7, as shown in Figure 2, and Windows 7 will automatically populate new Jump Lists as you use the operating system. (You can add Recent Items to the right pane of the Windows 7 Start menu in the Customize Start Menu dialog box, covered later in this article.)
Figure 2 A Jump List provided by Microsoft
The often-used Computer entry's right-click context menu is nearly identical to Windows Vista in form and function: Open, Manage, Map network drive, Disconnect network drive, Show on Desktop, Rename, and Properties. The Explore entry, however, no longer appears.
Devices and Printers
A welcome newcomer to the Start menu right pane is Devices and Printers, a Control Panel applet that lets you view and manage devices (the computer, monitor, USB receivers, and so on), printers, faxes, and even print jobs.
Double-click entries in this window to open a stage for the device, and you'll gain access to features and functions specific to its various capabilities (image upload for cameras, music or video upload/download for media players, address book import/export for smart phones, and so forth).
Changing the Start Menu
To change what appears in the right pane of the Start menu, right-click the Start button and select Properties. In the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box, click Customize on the Start Menu tab.
In the Customize Start Menu dialog box, shown in Figure 3, you can change dozens of Start menu-related settings by selecting options for displaying items as links, icons, or menus, or hiding items you don't want to display.
Figure 3 The Customize Start Menu dialog box