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The Start button has been a staple of the Windows operating system on both desktops and servers since the mid-1990s, and is as recognizable a feature as the dock in Mac OS X or the ignition on your car. With Windows 8, however, the Start menu is being seriously downgraded to such an extent that most users won’t even be aware of its continued existence.
It’s all part of the drive by Microsoft to make their new touch-friendly interface as usable as possible, something that a purely mouse-driven tool clearly has no business being involved with. This hasn’t stopped people from trying to hack the Windows 8 Developer Preview to restore the Windows 7 Start button and menu, however. Given that Windows 8 features its own stripped-down version of the feature, it seems odd that anyone would feel the need to go to such lengths.
If you haven’t already checked out the Windows 8 Developer Preview, meanwhile, you can quickly install it in a virtual machine using VirtualBox.
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What’s So Great About the Start Menu Anyway?
It’s a good question. For years the Start menu was the quick route to any number of tools and functions in Windows, from the Control Panel to launching an application, but since Microsoft introduced the search bar in Vista, use of the Start menu has decreased for most users. After all, why spend time checking through the applications list in the Start menu when you can quickly tap the Windows key on your PC and type the name of the program you want to use. The search tool is so quick that it almost always displays the results straight away, and you then use the arrow and Enter keys, or the mouse, to select the right program.
With regards to the Start menu itself, Microsoft's Alice Steinglass was pretty clear about the situation.
“We realized that it was serving mainly as the launcher for programs you rarely use. The Start menu is not well-optimized for this purpose. It affords limited customization, provides virtually no useful information, and offers only a small space for search results."
Everything you would need from the Start menu in Windows 7 is available in the Start screen in Windows 8. As a result, the Start menu is now nothing more than a monolithic reminder of previous Windows versions, and it could be argued that it has no more place in Windows 7 than it does in Windows 8.
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How to Enable the Windows 7 Style Start Menu in Windows 8
Windows 8 does feature a Start menu, however. You’ll find it in the lower-left corner of the display, hidden until clicked. This stripped-down version of the tradition Start menu resembles the Windows Phone version of the Metro user interface (the touch-friendly star of Windows 8) and offers a stripped down set of options: Settings, Devices, Share and Search.
Remarkably, however, it is possible to restore the traditional Windows Start menu. While there is every chance that this option might appear in the finished Windows 8 – there are bound to be some corporate users that cannot get to grips with the new operating system – for now Windows 8 Developer Preview users can turn back the clock (and mess up some other Windows 8 user interface features) using the Windows 8 Start Menu Toggle tool available via DeviantArt.
You will find the Download File link on the right-hand side. Once downloaded, unzip the contents and then run w8smt.exe, clicking the large button in the center of the utility interface to make the change. This will then activate the old style Start menu in Windows 8 by altering the RPEnabled string in the registry entry HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer.
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Why Not Just Leave it Alone?
Of course, Windows users have plenty of reason to use the Start menu, from accessing Search to launching applications, opening the Control Panel, Help files and even viewing the various options in Computer. But all of this is still available in Windows 8, and that is probably what is confusing some of the users that have downloaded the Windows 8 Developer Preview.
Previous versions of Windows since Windows 95 have all featured the Start menu, taskbar and system tray. Windows 8 is a diversion from this familiarity, preferring instead to rely on the user interface stylings of Windows Phone and Zune. The result is amazing to use and enjoy, but clearly this isn’t enough for some users.
Along with the Start screen there is also a traditional Windows desktop available in Windows 8, deemed necessary in order to run legacy applications; it is well-integrated, and no doubt will remain present in Windows for a few more years to come, even if it is relegated to the status of an app.
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Clearly Windows is changing and while the Windows 8 UI doesn’t have space for the old style Start menu, anyone using the Windows 8 Developer Preview can use the Windows 8 Start Menu Toggle tool to turn back the clock, as it were.
Whether or not this is worth doing remains to be seen, however; we still have the traditional desktop, after all, and a stripped down version of the Start menu will remain in Windows 8.
- Garling, Caleb. "New Windows Start Screen Paves Way for Touchscreen PCs", http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2011/10/windows-start-screen-touchscreen/
- Windows 8 Start Menu Toggle by Solo-dev, http://solo-dev.deviantart.com/art/Windows-8-Start-Menu-Toggle-258422929
- Windows 8 Start Menu Toggle, Disable, Enable Metro UI, http://www.ghacks.net/2011/09/15/windows-8-start-menu-toggle-disable-enable-metro-ui/
- Screenshot by author.