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Bringing the Start Menu Back to Windows 8

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Don't sweat the absence of the Start menu in Windows 8 if you are curious about switching to Microsoft's latest desktop OS. If you prefer such a menu, there are lots of replacement options available for $5 or less (free, even). Check out Ed Tittel's article to examine two of the most popular Windows 8 Start menu replacements.
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Although Microsoft's Windows 8 has been a source for lots of controversy and contention, there's no arguing that the company's decision not to offer a Start button in its desktop GUI has been right up at the top of anybody's list of "yelling points" for the latest MS desktop OS. Having now used Windows 8 daily for over a year, I am inclined to believe—as I did with Windows Vista—that Windows 8 really doesn't suck all that much. In fact, those who want the Start button (and its menu) back needn't rail at fickle fate or bad design decisions: It's far better that they simply reach out and grab any of the numerous Start menu replacements available for Windows 8, and then restore to their own desktops what Microsoft chose to remove!

There's even a Wikipedia page available these days that's titled "List of Start Menu replacements for Windows 8." It currently lists 17 options from which users can choose; should they be inclined to investigate all of them, they can follow the links also included in that article. I've looked at most of them, and tried out more than half of them, and can save you the trouble of downloading and trying each and every option.

Here, I present what I (and many other Windows experts, mavens, and gurus) agree are the two best of the bunch::

  • Stardock Corporation's Start8: Stardock is a long-time maker of excellent Windows utilities, and this $5-per-PC product is worth every penny, and works enough like the Windows 7 Start menu that most users won't notice any jarring differences.
  • Classic Shell: A free SourceForge project that provides a Start button for Windows 8, this self-professed "collection of usability enhancements for Windows" also supports numerous customizations for that menu, including multiple styles and skins, along with status bars for both Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer.

I have used—and like—both of these Start menu replacements on test and production machines alike, and I am quite happy to work with and use either one of them. Those who prefer free software will probably gravitate to Classic Shell, while those who don't mind paying a little bit for great convenience and easy-to-use functionality will probably prefer Start8 instead.

At a combined cost of $5 for both items, it's not ruinous to try out Start8 first and later settle on Classic Shell (although tackling these two in the opposite order means you'll spend nothing if you try Classic Shell first and decide to stay put).

The Best Things in Life Are Free: Classic Shell

Classic Shell is a SourceForge project, which means it is part of a large repository of free and open-source software development efforts (use of SourceForge is free to developers as the resulting software is free to end-users).

As I write this article, there are more than more than 3.4 million developers at work on 324,000 ongoing projects at SourceForge, and more than 4 million software downloads occur per day. Classic Shell is the work of developer Ivo Beltchev, who also operates the Classic Shell website for this software, from which you can download the program, access a FAQ and Screenshot repository, interact with other users on a forum, and more.

Classic Shell is currently at version 3.6.5, where version numbers go back to the 0.9 beta version, dated 11/29/2009. (It predates Windows 8, which explains why it offers Classic 3.x Windows and Windows XP layouts and skins, as well as Windows 7).

In working with Classic Shell, I concentrate here on the program's Windows 7 skin, which makes the Start menu look and behave much like the Windows 7 Start menu. Classic Shell also supports older Windows visual layouts called "Windows Classic" and "Windows XP." Those who want to roll back farther than Windows 7 can select either of these look-and-feel choices instead of "Windows Vista/Windows 7," which I employed to make all screen shots for this article.

As shown in Figure 1, the Classic Shell behavior uses a series of cascading menus that work like Windows 7, but don't look exactly as they would on a true Windows 7 desktop. In nearly every other respect, the interface behaves like the Windows 7 Start menu, so you can search for programs, consoles, or files using the search box; run programs and utilities; or access the command line easily, using the interface that Classic Shell makes available.

A little bit of learning is involved, but anyone who knows how to use Windows 7 will quickly (if not instantly) become comfortable with Classic Shell.

Figure 1 Classic Shell uses a clamshell start button and cascading fly-out menus

Classic Shell is quick and easy to install: Download a 8.36 MB file named ClassicShellSetup<version>.exe from SourceForge (for version 3.6.5, that filename was ClassicShellSetup_3_6_5.exe) and launch the .exe file. You basically have to agree to the license and click through a couple of screens ("Next") to get through the install process, after which you pick your look-and-feel from its three choices ("Classic Windows," "Windows XP," and "Windows Vista/Windows 7"). By default, the next time you start your PC, you'll boot into the desktop with the Classic Shell Start menu, ready to go to work on your behalf.

Off to a Great Windows Start: Start8

Stardock, which has been around since 1991, got its start by developing tools and utilities for OS/2 back when IBM mounted its offense to try to unseat Microsoft from its PC desktop OS dominance in the era when Windows was just getting rolling (and DOS ruled the desktop world).

Aside from its various games, Stardock is best known for utilities designed to customize and extend graphical user interfaces; and to change the way desktop operating systems look, operate, and feel to its users. Its best-known offering is called Object Desktop, which includes tools for organizing the Windows desktop (Fences), managing icons (IconPackager), re-skinning the Windows GUI (WindowBlinds), managing multiple Windows desktops (DesktopX), and more. Many big-name PC OEMS, including HP and Dell, license Stardock technology to help customize their PC desktops.

Start8 was available in beta form before Windows 8 was released to the general public on October 26, 2012; the commercial 1.0 version shipped that same day. The current version of Start8 is 1.11 as I write this story. The default download site (even when you order direct from the vendor) is at C|NET; the installer comes in a file named Start8-setup.exe that's 5.6 MB in size.

Installation is dead simple: Run the installer and then march through a small set of (three) configuration screens. Once the program is up and running, it can be configured to take Windows 8 to the desktop straight from bootup, with no intermediate stop on the Modern UI (tile-based) start screen.

This is a popular configuration option for those who, like me, spend little or no time using Modern UI apps, but who spend the vast majority of our time at the PC working on standard desktop applications.

Figure 2 depicts the Start8 Configuration utility, with the (default) Style selection element active (this is also where you can choose what the Start button looks like; I chose the Flag option for the window pane effect on the Start button shown in Figure 4 (you can even choose the icon Start8 uses for the button if you like).

Figure 2 By default, Start8 uses "Windows 8 style." For consistency, I chose Window 7 instead

The Desktop control is where you manage how Start8 looks and behaves on your Windows 8 PC, as shown in Figure 3. The important check box items are these:

  • Show a start button on the main taskbar
  • Disable bottom left hot corner when the taskbar overlaps it (This prevents dueling controls between the native Windows 8 environment and Start8 itself.)
  • Automatically go to the Desktop when I sign in

All these options are selected by default, except for "Automatically go..." If you're like me, you'll turn that one on, too, so you can get right to work when you fire up your Windows 8 PC.

Figure 3 Make sure that important settings on this control pane are turned on

After you've set things up for yourself, you'll see something like this when you use the Start8 Start menu button, depicted in Figure 4. Notice that subsidiary menus expand in place (exactly as they do in Windows 7), rather than cascading to the right (as they do in Classic Shell).

Personally, I've come to prefer Start8 because it's more compact and familiar. For other users, Classic Shell's customizability (and no-cost availability) may prove more compelling. Either Windows 8 add-on will address the "missing Start menu" complaint so typical for new Windows 8 users, and enable them to get to work with minimal muss and fuss.

Figure 4 The Administrative Tools submenu opens inside the Programs list at the left, just like all folders do in the "All Programs" view in Windows 7

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