Windows 8 introduces a brand new user interface, alternately called the Metro, Modern, Windows 8, or Tiled interface. This new interface is typified by the new Start screen, where big, brightly colored tiles represent all the apps and utilities installed on your PC.
Windows 8 also takes away many things of which we’re familiar, most notably the Start button and Start menu. This move has annoyed and incensed millions of upgraders, and quite possibly been part of the reason for Windows 8’s poor reviews and even poorer sales.
Fortunately, you don’t have to live with Microsoft’s decision to remove the Start button and Start menu. There are several third-party solutions that return this basic functionality to Windows 8 – in an unofficial capacity, of course.
What Happened to the Start Menu?
If you’re one of the hundreds of millions of people who’ve used a previous version of Windows, Microsoft’s new Windows 8 represents somewhat of a conundrum. There’s all this new candy-colored window dressing, in the form of the tiled Start screen, but at the expense of the tried and true way of doing things. In particular, users are griping – loudly – about Microsoft’s removal of the Start button and Start menu from the Desktop environment.
And justly so, if you ask me. Those of us not using Windows 8 on a touchscreen tablet – which is pretty much everyone – are forced to relearn what used to be a simple way to launch programs and utilities. Instead of clicking the Start button and selecting an item from the Start menu, you know have to back out the Start screen (and how do you do that, exactly?), then find and click or tap a big ol’ tile for the item you want to open. This approach – the only way to do it in Windows 8 – rudely shifts you from one operating environment to another, which adds more time to a common task. It’s an unnecessary and inefficient change that was not requested by any user I’m aware of.
Why, then, did Microsoft remove the Start button and Start menu? To force everyone into the new Metro interface, of course. Deep within the bowels of Microsoft, the Windows Development Team got a bug up its collective butt that the very nature of personal computing was shifting, and that tablets with touchscreen capability were going to be stealing users away from the traditional PC environment – and Microsoft’s very profitable Windows operating system. Since Microsoft was not a player in the tablet market, this fear of tablets (specifically, a fear of Apple’s iPad) led the team to develop a version of Windows optimized for tablet use. Hence the big fingertip-friendly tiles of Windows 8’s Start screen.
That’s all well and good, and maybe even a decent product strategy, but then Microsoft took this point to its illogical conclusion and decided that the new touch-friendly operating environment (initially dubbed Metro) should be made universal across all types of devices – from tablets to smartphones to desktop and notebook PCs. And the Metro interface wouldn’t just be made available on these devices, but rather made mandatory. Metro was the way of the future, whether anybody wanted it or not, so Microsoft would force it upon its entire user base. It didn’t matter whether or not people like it, it was good for them. Or so sayeth Microsoft.
So that’s how we got Windows 8 and the tiled Start screen interface. And since the Microsofties were drunk on the Metro Kool-Aid, they decided to force this new way on everyone by making it impossible to do things the old way – that is, by removing the Start button and Start menu. In Windows 8, if you want to launch a new program, you have to use the Start screen. There’s no other option.
You don’t have to be a member of the Gallup family to realize that most existing Windows users would resist this change. Nobody asked for it, after all; people have been happy using the Start button and Start menu ever since Windows 95, almost two decades ago. Removing those old familiar tools not only confused existing users, it made them angry. Very angry.
We want our Start button back
Examining Start Menu Replacements
Fortunately, there are some options, in the form of Start menu replacement utilities. These are third-party tools that add back some semblance of a Start button and Start menu to the Windows 8 Desktop. These tools are not supplied or endorsed by Microsoft; that would be asking too much. Instead, these tools come from outside companies recognizing a true user need.
Let’s take a look at the most popular of these Start menu replacement tools. There are actually more available than I mention here, but I’ve found these to work the most smoothly and have the least compatibility problems of the bunch.
Classic Shell for Windows 8
Classic Shell is actually a collection of utilities for Windows 8. In addition to the Start button and Start menu for the Desktop, you also get a new toolbar and status bar for Windows Explorer, as well as a caption and status bar for the Internet Explorer web browser.
Figure 1 Classic Shell for Windows 8 – with the Windows 7-style Start button selected
Of course, it’s the Start button and corresponding menu that are of primary interest, and Classic Shell’s replacements are pretty good. You can choose between three different visual styles (Classic, Windows 7, and Windows XP), and the resulting Start menu is what you’d expect, with cascading menus and submenus just like you’re used to. It’s not an exact representation of the Windows 7 Start menu, but it’s pretty close.
Classic Shell is an open source project, which means it’s free. (They accept donations, of course.) You can learn more and download it from www.classicshell.net.
Start Menu 8
IObit’s Start Menu 8 is another free utility. It offers a replacement Start menu that’s a little bit closer to the Windows 7 version than you get with Classic Shell. It also offers the option of skipping past the Windows 8 Start screen on startup, as well as hiding the Charms bar and deactivating hot corners. The result is a very Windows 7-like experience.
Figure 2 Start Menu 8's replacement Start menu
As noted, Start Menu 8 is completely free. Learn more at www.iobit.com/iobitstartmenu8.php.
Stardock’s Start8 adds a Windows 7-style Start menu back to Windows 8. It also addresses another issue faced by Windows 8 users by letting you boot directly to the Desktop, completely bypassing the new Metro Start screen. That’s a big plus, as it makes Windows 8 pretty much like Windows 7 – you never have to exit out to the Metro interface if you don’t want to.
Figure 3 Start8 in action
To my mind, Start8 does the best job of all these tools at accurately reproducing the look and functionality of the Windows 7 Start menu. The only thing different is the flat “flag” button, which is less attractive than the Win7 Start “orb.” No matter; the Start8 menu itself is a pretty close representation of what you’re used to in Windows 7.
By the way, Start8 offers a slew of customization options, including the ability to display a Metro Start screen-style menu when you click the new Start button. This might be a way for some Desktop users to ease into the Metro interface, if you like.
Unlike some of the other Start menu replacements, however, Start8 isn’t free. You’ll pay $4.99 to download and install this tool, although there is a free trial available if you just want to check it out. Learn more at www.stardock.com/products/start8/.
Pokki differs from the other Start menu replacements in that it doesn’t try to be an exact replacement. Instead of trying to replicate the Windows 7 Start menu, it lets you create your own customized Start menu experience.
Figure 4 A custom Pokki start menu
In other words, Pokki is an appealing utility for inveterate tweakers. You can create a Windows 8 Start menu that looks pretty much any way you want it to look, with all manner of program and menu options. Forget Windows 7; Pokki lets you create a new custom Start menu, just for you.
Pokki is a free utility, which is also appealing. Learn more at www.pokki.com/windows-8-start-menu.
Other Start Menu Replacements
In the course of writing this article I checked out several other Start menu replacements, and found them lacking. Here are the utilities you might want to skip:
- Power8. This one works fine, but really isn’t a genuine Start menu replacement. First of all, it really doesn’t add a Start button, but rather a small Start bar at the far left of the Taskbar. Click this and you see the replacement Start menu, which looks kind of sort of like the traditional Start menu, but not quite. You don’t get the same menu options, and to view all your programs (as with the old All Programs option) you have to first click Start Menu and then click Programs. It’s better than not having any Start button or menu, but not near as appealing as the other options discussed previously.
- Start Is Back. I kind of liked this one at the start; it does an excellent job of mimicking the Windows 7 Start menu. (Start is Back ties into some legacy Win7 code that’s still in Win8, so it’s pretty much the real deal.) My problem was in uninstalling the program – which I couldn’t. For some reason, at least on my system, Windows’ Uninstall Program tool doesn’t uninstall this program. That may not be a big deal for you, if you really like Start Is Back and want to keep using it (it costs $3, by the way), but I don’t like programs that won’t let go; it’s an indication of questionable programming.
- ViStart 8. This utility really isn’t much of a utility. Instead, it’s a new toolbar that installs on the Desktop Taskbar that mimics the appearance and operation of the traditional Start menu. I found ViStart to be extremely kludgy, and a very old school, low tech approach to the problem. You’re better off going with one of the more modern and sophisticated Start button replacements.
Your mileage may vary, of course, which means you might like the options that I didn’t. Still, for most users I recommend one of the previous programs[md]Classic Shell, Start Menu 8, or Start8. (Or, for tweakers, Pokki.) These utilities provide the most Windows 7-like experiences, with the least amount of hassle.
What About Windows Blue/8.1?
As noted, any of these third-party tools will add Start button/menu functionality back to Windows 8. But why doesn’t Microsoft offer similar functionality itself? Isn’t the company listening to its (loud and numerous) user complaints?
The answer to that question may come in what was code-named Windows Blue and is now known as Windows 8.1. Windows 8.1 promises to be a necessary update to the Windows 8 operating system. It’s somewhere between a simple service pack and a more full-fledged upgrade, offering bug fixes and enhanced functionality.
One of the features included in Windows 8.1 is – wait for it – a Start button, as well as the ability to bypass the Start screen entirely by booting directly to the Desktop. Rumor has it that the Windows team has been resisting this addition, but that it’s being forced back in by upper management. (If this is true, bravo to upper management!)
Until the Fall of 2013, however, if you want your old functionality back, you need to go with one of these Start button replacements. It’s not quite the same as having it all built into the operating system, but it’s a far sight better than doing completely without.