If you’ve spent any time at all with the previews of Windows 8 or even its final version, you’ve probably been frustrated by the new Start screen which replaces the Start menu. It was possible to restore the Start menu in the earlier preview releases, but Microsoft has removed that functionality altogether from its final code. Many of the tweaks and utilities that promised to restore the Start menu don’t work anymore, but luckily we have found at least two utilities that will do it perfectly.

The Start screen is part of a new experience called the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro), which lets you run full-screen apps in addition to today’s usual Windows software and is optimised for touch-centric devices such as tablets and hybrid notebooks. Microsoft has chosen a bold approach by forcing everyone into the Modern UI, as soon as a device boots up, and using the Start screen to launch all apps and programs. While many will get used to this quickly, especially on new touch-friendly hardware, those of us upgrading from Windows 7 or XP on a desktop PC will have to throw away over 15 years of learnt behaviour and habit. Things will be even more confusing for those who are not very comfortable using computers in the first place, including senior citizens, office workers and beginners.  


Classic Shell provides two main styles, but themes are available

Whatever your reasons may be, the good news is that it is now quite possible to restore every bit of the functionality of Windows 7’s Start menu, and in fact, even get the best of both worlds. After checking out a number of utilities, we have arrived at two recommendations: the free Classic Shell (classicshell.sourceforge.net) and the paid Start8 (stardock.com/products/start8).

Classic Shell is the less polished of the two, but it is completely free. The package consists of three separate tools: Classic Start Menu, which is what we’re most concerned with; Classic Explorer, which adds a toolbar back to the Windows Explorer; and Classic IE9, which displays icons and page names in the new version of the browser. Once installed, you’ll see a shell-shaped orb where the Start menu should be. Right-click to access the settings—the Basic view allows you to select between three visual styles, but clicking ‘All Settings’ brings up an incredibly detailed set of options to control everything from which menu items are visible to the size of each icon and duration of each animation. There’s no need to mess around with most of these settings, but if you do, the entry will automatically appear in bold so you know it’s not at its default. There are also a few skins included, but these are more for show than for any useful purpose.


Advanced settings provide fine-grained control over a variety of options

Classic Shell overrides the [Win] key on your keyboard as well, though you can still [Shift]+click or press [Shift]+[Win] to bring up the Start Screen. You’ll also still see the Charms bar if you flick your mouse cursor to the top or bottom right corners of the screen, though the multitasking bar doesn’t show up if you flick to the top left. You can change these behaviours in the advanced settings.

On the other hand, Start8 is far more sophisticated and a lot less intimidating to use. You don’t have as many obscure options, but the program itself is slick and smooth. First of all, you can choose either a classic Windows 7 Start menu (with or without a Windows 8 theme) or a hybrid Windows 8 menu that replicates the Start screen in just the corner of your screen. If you choose the latter, you’ll see the ‘All Apps’ screen and the Search bar smashed together in the space the Start menu would have occupied. This might look good, but the amount of scrolling involved makes it far less practical than either a classic Start menu or the full-sized Start screen. You get a few basic options, mostly mirrors of the ones Windows used to let you play with before the Modern UI came along. Where things get interesting are the ‘Control’ options. You can choose when and how Start8 will override the Start screen—you can choose different behaviours for when you’re in a Modern app and when you’re on the desktop, and bring up the Start screen with a [Ctrl]-click. All four hot corners can be disabled and even the Charms bar can be suppressed when you’re on the desktop, which means although none of these features are disabled, they won’t get in your way unless you specifically enter the Modern UI. The option that we found most interesting was right on the bottom: ‘Automatically go to the Desktop when I sign in’ will bypass the Start screen altogether—hallelujah!


Start8 can display a hybrid Windows 8 Start screen or a more traditional Start menu

Start8 is fantastically polished and never feels like a third-party add-on. It’s quite easy to forget that this isn’t how Windows 8 was designed to run in the first place. Considering how well it helps users get over Windows 8’s biggest sticking points, the $4.99 price feels like a bargain.


Choose whether or not you want to override the Charms bar and the Start screen altogether

Tags: , , , , , ,