Search as you might, you won't find a single bigger source of ire in Windows 8 than the new Modern UI (aka "Metro") Start menu. Defenders of the new full-screen, touch-based app launcher and notifications dashboard claim that Windows users were just as antsy about the original Windows 95 Start menu. Remember all the "Classic File Manager" replacements from that time? All true, but Windows 8's Start menu has thrown many people -- seasoned veterans, early adopters, and new users alike -- for a curve. And Microsoft has been adamant that the old Start menu is gone for good.
But where Microsoft doesn't go with Windows, others almost always do. Even before Windows 8 was released to manufacturing, various third parties were marketing add-ons that promised to restore a little (or a lot) of the classic Start menu goodness to Windows 8.
[ Also on InfoWorld: Windows 8 review: Yes, it's that bad | 5 excellent uses of Windows 8 Hyper-V | Windows to Go revisited: This early skeptic recants | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ] Why the Start menu was stopped By now most everyone knows that Windows 8 was built for a hybrid user base. It's designed to serve the legacy desktop and notebook market, as well as the emerging touch-driven tablet market. Microsoft claims that abandoning the classic Start menu wasn't a casual decision -- that real and substantive issues were involved, and the changes were inspired both by user telemetry and the changing face of computing.
The research Microsoft cited was surprising, to put it mildly; the company said that few people actually used the Start menu. But on top of that were other issues: The growing size of menus was becoming a logistical problem; Modern UI apps and the classic Start menu don't have a way to talk to each other; and most crucial, the old Start menu wasn't optimized for touch interfaces, not least because it was too small to use effectively on a touchscreen.
Whatever the rationale, the new Start screen turned out to be a bigger thorn in people's sides than Microsoft realized. Users reacted with a litany of complaints: The new Start is too touch-focused. The constantly updating live tiles are too distracting. Type-to-search is far less useful than before. It takes far more clicks to do certain things. Too many features are now hidden too deeply. And so on. In short, many longtime users feel they've been thrown under the bus.
In search of a better StartThe Windows 8 add-ons profiled here shove the obtrusive and inflexible Start screen aside, offering up versions of the classic Start menu that -- despite their many differences -- operate much like the original. You get a mouse-friendly menu in a manageable area of the screen, where you can access it in context with other items, instead of having to switch contexts entirely.
Most of these Start menu apps provide the option to log in directly to the desktop, bypassing Metro, er, Modern UI. All let you pin apps to their Start menu. Some re-create the old "accordion folder" behavior, where clicking on subfolders in the Start menu exposes additional apps. A few, such as Classic Shell and Power8, take the Windows XP fly-out menu approach.
Many of the apps also take a stab at restoring the classic Start menu's search behavior. Start8, StartIsBack, ViStart, and StartW8 all come very close to reproducing the original search function, which displayed documents, system tools, and other search results in a single, convenient summary view. Classic Shell, StartMenu8, and Power8 aren't as close to the original, but at least they try. Pokki not only restores something like the original search but also augments it with results from around the Web.
If you're looking for a better Start into Windows 8, chances are you'll find it among the nine alternatives explored below. Most of them are free, and none costs more than a few dollars. StartIsBack, Classic Shell, and Start8 stand out as the best of the bunch.
Classic Shell An open source project that was designed to replace the Windows 7 Start menu with the XP-style Start menu, Classic Shell has since been updated to provide a Windows 7 Start experience for Windows 8 users. Apps can be pinned to the menu area via drag and drop. A pair of fly-out menus (Programs and Apps) provides access to classic desktop programs and Modern UI apps, respectively. The program also supports starting the user session directly in the desktop and disabling Windows 8 hot corners. Type-to-search results from the Start menu also appear via a fly-out.
Classic Shell adds changes to Explorer, too: an icon ribbon populated with commonly used file commands (cut, copy, paste, and so on), revised file and folder conflict dialogs, and the ability to shut off the "breadcrumb" trail in the address bar and replace it with the full folder path.
Author: Ivo Beltchev Cost: Free (open source)
Start8 The makers of Object Desktop and WindowBlinds have created a Start menu replacement that behaves so much like the original Start menu it's a little uncanny. The accordion-style opening of folders, the subcategorized type-to-search results -- they're all here in Start8, plus a good deal of other configurability.
Apps can be pinned to the Start8 menu via a right-click context menu option in Explorer. Even the system shortcuts (Control Panel, Computer, Administrative Tools, and all the rest) can be toggled as needed. Better yet, the bottom-left hot corner can be used to take you straight to the Start8 menu, even from within a Modern UI app. Hotkeys can be assigned to bring up Windows 8's own Start screen, Windows 8 hot corners can be selectively disabled, and Modern UI apps can be hidden from the Start8 menu if you don't want to bother with them there.
Author: Stardock Software Cost: Free 30-day trial; $4.99 for a single-user license
StartMenu8Launch StartMenu8 and you're greeted with the familiar Windows 7 Start menu orb, along with a fairly spot-on reconstruction of the rest of the classic Start menu. The only obvious sign this isn't Windows 7: the Send Feedback link under your user icon. The StartMenu8 interface isn't as customizable as that of some of the other programs here. There's no way to toggle things like the links to the games folder or the Control Panel, and most of the program's behaviors appear to be hard-wired. But it does cover the major territory for a Start menu app. It lets users log in directly to the desktop, and it can deactivate the Windows 8 hot corners and the Modern UI sidebar.
Author: IObit Cost: Freeware
Power8A less wide-ranging open source project than Classic Shell, Power8 provides a self-sorting menu of commonly used applications, a set of fly-outs for the main Start menu app hierarchy, and fly-outs for Computer, Libraries, Control Panel, Administrative Tools, and Network shortcuts. The old search functionality is also replicated, Modern UI features (charms, hot corners, etc.) are disabled, and -- one very nice touch -- apps that have Windows 7 Taskbar jump lists have those available through Power8 as well. On the downside, Power8 doesn't skip the Start screen at log-in, and it doesn't trap taps of the Windows key (pressing that still takes you to the Modern UI Start screen). Also, the number of configurable features is minimal.
Author: Power8 Team Cost: Free (open source)
PokkiPokki is a much more ambitious program than many of the others shown here. It doesn't just restore the original Start menu -- it also replaces the Windows 8 Start screen as a source for notifications. It does this via various Flash-driven apps, available for (among other things) many common social networks from Pokki's own little app store. However, replacing Microsoft's app store with one from a vendor with far less name recognition doesn't seem like a great idea.
Pokki doesn't restore the original Start menu so much as come up with an enhanced replacement for it -- not a bad idea, since there's enough here that's familiar (links to common system locations, the Search box) to make it easy to dive into. I liked the button next to the Shut Down fly-out that provides you with quick access to the Start screen, since you can disable access to that and the hot corners. Plus, you can set the system to boot directly to the desktop.
Author: SweetLabs Cost: Freeware
StartIsBackStartIsBack is a startlingly precise re-creation of the Windows 7 Start menu, orb and all, although its appearance is a good deal more tweakable than the original. Each Windows 8 hot corner can be selectively toggled; the Start screen can be skipped on log-in, renamed "Apps," invoked with a dedicated hotkey, and reserved only for Modern UI programs; and Search retains its classic behavior. Right-click on a program in Explorer and you can pin apps to the StartIsBack menu. Even jump lists for apps show up in StartIsBack. There's little extra, but almost nothing is missing.
Author: Tihiy Cost: Free 30-day trial; two-PC license $3
RetroUIRetroUI is another app that doesn't merely resurrect the classic Start menu, but tries to one-up it, with mixed results. Clicking the RetroUI Taskbar icon brings up a tile grid that's reminiscent of the Windows 8 Start screen (above), but occupies much less screen space and comes outfitted with fly-outs that borrow from the original Start menu (Libraries, Computer, Control Panel). Also included are handy shortcuts to the Modern UI Task Switcher and Charms bar. Another Taskbar icon opens an icon-grid view that displays only Modern UI apps and major system locations.
The behavior of the RetroUI menu takes a little sorting out. Legacy desktop apps at first appear only in the Programs fly-out, but they can be pinned to the tile grid. There's no "pin to" option added to right-click in Explorer, though, and Search is still only done through the Modern UI interface. But there is a nice feature that forces the Taskbar to show up on the Start screen and when Modern UI apps are running, which no other program shown here could do.
Author: Thinix Cost: Free 7-day trial; pricing starts at $4.95 per seat
ViStartViStart offers little beyond the re-creation of the vintage Start menu's look and behavior. It works well, but doesn't provide much more than the most basic behavior. For instance, there's no right-click Explorer integration to allow apps to be pinned to the menu.
The options within the program itself are also minimal. You can change the orb image and override the Windows key behavior, but that's about it. If you want to make any other major changes to the program's behavior, you have to edit the program's XML configuration file. The Start button and menu are skinnable, however, and a number of skins have already been developed for the app.
Author: Lee-Soft Cost: Freeware
StartW8StartW8 is a good classic Start menu re-creation, albeit with the "flat" Windows 8 visual style, no orb graphic, and few customization options. It lets you skip directly to the desktop after logging in, but it doesn't disable charms or hot corners (not even the Start screen hot corner). StartW8 also lacks Explorer right-click integration. Pinning programs to the Start menu is difficult to figure out as well. On the plus side, StartW8 does a decent job of restoring the classic Search functionality.
Author: SODATSW Cost: Freeware
This story, "9 Windows Start menus for Windows 8" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter. Read more about microsoft windows in InfoWorld's Microsoft Windows Channel.