How to get the Start menu back in Windows 8

Several third-party utilities can serve as Start menu replacements for Windows 8 users who aren't as keen on the new Start screen.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Editors' note: This story was originally published on August 20, 2012. It has been updated several times since then to include additional programs and other details, most recently with 8Startbutton, StartIsBack, and Start Menu 8 on May 27, 2014.

Still miss the classic Start menu in Windows 8 and 8.1? Never fear, alternatives are here.

Microsoft lopped off the Start menu in Windows 8 to force people to use the Start screen. And I'll admit it, the Start screen does offers several benefits.

Live Tiles can clue you in to the latest e-mails, appointments, news, and other information. You can easily search for any app, setting, or file just by typing its name.

But I still find the folder-structured Start menu the quickest and easiest way to launch any application when I'm already working in the desktop. And Microsoft seems to have finally realized that many other users do as well. At its Build conference in April, the software giant revealed that it will bring back a new and hopefully improved Start menu in the next update to Windows 8.1.

In the meantime, though, the only option for those of you who crave the good, old Start menu in Windows 8 or 8.1 is to use a Start menu alternative. And those are just what you'll find here. Most of the programs covered in this overview are free or at least offer a free version. Many go beyond just replicating the Start menu by letting you customize their look and feel.

Here is a rundown of several Windows 8 Start menu replacements that you can take for a spin.

Classic Shell
Classic Shell Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Classic Shell
Classic Shell bills itself as a "collection of features that were available in older versions of Windows but were later removed." Topping the list for this free open-source program is a new but familiar take on the classic Start menu.

Clicking on the Windows orb after installation lets you choose between displaying all settings in the Start menu, or just the basics. You can also select between a simple single-paned menu or the more modern dual-paned menu.

The Classic Shell menu displays shortcuts to all of your programs, documents, and settings. The familiar Run command and Search field are visible. Clicking on the Shut Down icon brings up choices for Shut Down, Restart, Hibernate, Lock, and Switch User. The Help command even calls up the new Windows 8 Help and Support page.

The latest version of Classic Shell lets you bypass the Start screen even faster. It also adds jump lists to the main menu. And you can now search for and launch Windows Store apps directly from the program's submenu.

Classic Shell lends itself to customization. The program offers an array of basic and advanced settings that you can tweak all you want. You can even back up your tweaks as an XML file in case you ever need to restore them or transfer them to another PC running Classic Shell.

You can learn more through the program's detailed FAQ page. Windows 8 users in search of a free, simple, and flexible Start menu program will find all of that and more in Classic Shell.

8startbutton.jpg
8Startbutton Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET
8Startbutton
8Startbutton offers a different twist on the familiar Start menu. Instead of directly displaying the menu, the program shows you a series of six buttons that form more of a Windows control center. Each button triggers a different function. For example, one button shuts down Windows, another restarts it, and another signs you out. A fourth button taps into Windows search. A fifth takes you to the Start screen. And a sixth opens the 8Startbutton menu.

Clicking the button for the 8Startbutton menu conjures up a Start menu with a single-column display featuring shortcuts for your programs on the right and a series of icons on the left.

One icon points you to a built-in file browser so you can navigate to any folder on your PC. Another icon shows you a list of recent files. A third reveals a collection of tiles with pointers to popular Windows spots, such as your computer, your network settings, your personal folder, your photos, your music, and your documents. With the menu as your starting point, you can navigate to virtually any application, file, or area in Windows.

The bottom of the menu sports more features, notably a search tool. A dropdown field provides options to shut down, sign out from, or lock your PC. And another field displays tools to access the command line, Registry Editor, Device Manager, and even all of your Metro, aka Modern, apps.

Right-clicking the button for 8Startbutton displays a different menu, one with options to shut down, restart, or sign out, as well as pointers to the Task Manager and a handy list of Windows tasks that you can trigger all from one window.

From the right-click menu, you can also customize various settings for 8Startbutton. You can choose whether your left click triggers the 8Startbutton menu, the Windows 8 Start screen, or the Windows 8 apps screen. You can opt to hide the program's Start button and instead trigger its roundup of six buttons by simply moving your mouse to the lower lefthand corner. You can choose to boot directly to the desktop when Windows starts, an option built into Windows 8.1 as well. And you can change the image used by the button.

Developed by a firm called Total Idea, 8Startbutton comes in both free and paid versions. The paid edition costs a hefty $14.88 for a single license but drops down to $6.95 for anywhere from two to nine licenses. What's the difference between the free and paid products? The free flavor limits your customization options while the paid edition lets you tweak all of the settings. The free version also nags you to upgrade each time you start Windows and launch the menu.

I still prefer Classic Shell. But 8Startbutton offers a different spin on the classic Windows Start menu. The free edition is certainly worth checking out.

Pokki for Windows 8
Pokki for Windows 8 Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Pokki for Windows 8
Developed by the folks at SweetLabs, Pokki for Windows 8 offers a slick and well-designed Start menu. From that menu, you can access all of your programs and open specific folders, such as Documents, Music, and Pictures. A search field lets you track down any program. And a Shut Down menu includes several options, such as Shut Down, Restart, Sleep, and Hibernate.

The developers of Pokki aren't standing still either. The latest update to the program ties in more heavily with the Windows 8 UI. A new folder called Windows 8 Apps displays links to all of your Windows Store (formerly Metro) apps. And when you search from the Pokki menu, Windows Store apps are now included in the results.

Pokki for Windows 8 is one of my favorite Start menu programs, both for its design and its host of customizable features.

Power8
Power8 Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Power8
Billed as "yet another Start menu replacer for Windows 8," the free Power8 displays a Start button in the usual spot on the desktop. Clicking on that button brings up the familiar two-pane menu. From the left pane, you can pin your favorite applications and access all your programs via the Programs menu. From the right pane, you can open specific folders, such as Computer, Libraries, Control Panel, Administrative Tools, and Network.

A handy search field at the bottom can track down any application, file, or other item on your PC. The familiar Run command lets you type the name of a program, folder, or file to open it. The menu offers easy access to the Shut Down, Restart, Sleep, Hibernate, Log off, Screensaver, and Lock PC commands.

Right-clicking on Power8's Start button triggers a pop-up menu with several options. The Settings command lets you customize the software's behavior. You can set it to auto start each time you log in to Windows 8. You can also resize the button or change its image.

You can block all Windows 8 UI, aka Metro, aka Modern, features, which means your mouse will no longer trigger the Start screen thumbnail or the Charms bar. Even with that option enabled, you can still click on the Windows key to get to the Start screen or press Win+C to activate the Charms bar.

Created by a team of developers in Ukraine, Power8 is a simple but effective Start menu replacement.

RetroUI Pro Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

RetroUI Pro
Created by the folks at Thinix, RetroUI Pro tries to bring together the two worlds of the Windows 8 UI and the standard desktop, so you get a slick blending of both.

Right off the bat, the program's Start menu looks and feels different than the Start menus offered by other programs. Clicking on the Start orb brings up a menu filled with tiles and blocks in a nod to the Windows 8 Start screen UI.

The left pane displays square icons for both standard desktop applications and Windows 8, aka Metro, apps, while the right pane offers access to your library folders, Control Panel, programs, and your user folder. You can pin any right-pane folder or other item to the left pane so that it's more easily accessible. You can also easily right-click on any left-pane item and select the delete command to remove its icon from the pane.

You'll find dedicated buttons to launch the Start screen, Charms bar, Task Switcher, and Windows 8 search screen. A shutdown button offers links to sleep, lock, log off, restart, and shut down your PC. And the familiar Run command is handily available.

Thinix designed RetroUI Pro so it's equally at home on a Windows 8 tablet as well as a PC. A TabletView button at the top of the menu transforms it into a tiled screen displaying all of the programs and other items from the left pane. You can then click or tap on any tile to open the item.

RetroUI Pro also provides a twist on Windows 8 apps that Microsoft never bothered to implement. Thanks to a feature called Enforce, you can launch a Windows 8 app from the program's Start menu, and it opens in its own resizable window directly on the desktop. You can shrink the window by dragging any of its sides or corners. You can move the smaller window around the desktop by dragging it from its title bar. You can also close the app by clicking on the familiar X in the upper right corner.

The desktop taskbar also remains visible when you switch to the Windows 8 Start screen or All Apps screen, so you can easily return to the RetroUI Pro menu from anywhere in Windows. The RetroUI menu is itself a taskbar toolbar that can be turned on and off.

Thininx provides a variety of ways to customize the program. Clicking on a desktop icon called RetroUI Settings offers several sections of options to configure. You can choose to open the RetroUI menu by pressing the Windows key, bypass the Windows 8 Start screen after logging in, and even hide the Windows 8 hot corners.

You can change the size of the TabletView screen and display its icon in the taskbar. Another section lets you control the Enforce feature to control if and how Windows 8 apps open in their own resizable windows. Other options allow you to set the default language, change the color of the Start menu, and disable all Windows 8 feature.

Finally, a desktop icon called RetroUI Pro tutorial displays a series of slideshows to fully explain all the ins and outs of the program.

You can download a free 7-day trial version of the program. A single PC license sells for $4.95 while a 3-PC license costs $9.95. RetroUI Pro offers a novel and clean way of uniting the Start menu with the Windows 8 environment and is well worth the price.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Start8
Available from Stardock, Start8 offers several options depending on how fond you are of the new Start screen. You can set up the orb to display the traditional Start menu or the Start screen. You can also select the menu style, themes, and a variety of other features.

The Start menu appears in the traditional two-pane format with shortcuts to your programs and folders on the left and links to Documents, Pictures, Control Panel, and other areas on the right. A Shut Down command offers options to Restart, Sign Out, Sleep, Hibernate, and more. As in Windows 7, you can control which items appear on the Start menu, which ones appear as links, and which ones as menus.

You can also still retain access to the new Windows 8 features. For example, you can set the Windows key and the Start screen hot corner to open the Start screen. If you want to avoid the Windows 8 UI instead, you can disable the Charms bar and hot corners to stay fully in the desktop.

Start8 sells for $4.99, though the company offers a full 30-day trial version. Other free and equally good Start menu replacements are available, but Start8 is still worth considering.

startisback.jpg
StartIsBack Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

StartIsBack
StartIsBack looks, feels, and acts like a traditional Windows Start menu. Clicking on the Start orb displays a familiar two-column menu with your programs on the left and various Windows settings and locations on the right.

You can switch the left view between all your programs and just the most recent ones. You can even access Modern apps either through individual shortcuts or an entire folder.

A search field at the bottom lets you find programs, settings, and files by name, while a Shutdown button allows you to shut down or restart Windows, lock your PC, sign out of your account, or switch to a different user. The right column provides access to all of the core Windows features and locations, including your user profile, documents, pictures, music, Devices & Printers, and Control Panel.

You can easily customize StartIsBack by right-clicking the Start orb and selecting the Properties command. You can then choose which programs you want to appear, how to sort them, and whether or not to display links to Modern apps. You can change the look of the orb and the color of the menu itself. You can also tweak some key Windows settings, such as whether to bypass the Start screen and go directly to the desktop, what Windows does after you close a Modern app, and what happens when you press the Windows key.

StartIsBack starts you off with a free 30-day trial. If you want to keep running it, you'll then have to ante up $3 for a single PC, $5 for two PCs, or $10 for 5 PCs. The program doesn't offer a lot of bells and whistles. But if you want a simple, down-to-earth Start menu, StartIsBack fits the bill.

startmenu8.jpg
Start Menu 8 Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Start Menu 8
Start Menu 8 is another traditional Start menu replacement with some handy customizations.

You can tweak the behavior of the program's Start orb to display a familiar two-column Start menu or the Windows Start screen. Should you choose the Start menu, you can opt for the classic look with your programs on the left and the standard Windows features and locations on the right. You can open both desktop applications and Modern apps from the menu. The familiar Search tool and Shutdown options are also accessible at the bottom of the menu.

Right-clicking the orb presents a menu with options to launch the Start screen, open File Explorer, trigger the Run command, and access the full Shutdown menu. The right-click menu also provides a link to the settings and customizations for Start Menu 8. From the Settings window, you can enable or disable various Windows settings, change the image for the orb, choose which features should appear in the menu, and tweak the style and appearance for the menu.

Available from Iobit, Start Menu 8 is a basic Start menu with enough options to tweak it to your tastes. It's also free, so you can run the full program for as long as you like.

StartMenuPlus8
StartMenuPlus8 Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

StartMenuPlus8
StartMenuPlus8 offers the usual Start menu replacement but throws in a Task Menu, albeit at an extra price.

After installation, the program asks if you want to run it as a basic, standard, standard plus, or professional user. Each increase in level offers more features. You can start off as a basic user and then upgrade later on if you wish.

As a basic user, you can click on the familiar Start button orb to display the program's Start menu. Shortcuts to various programs and certain folders appear on the left pane, while links to Documents, Pictures, Music, Control Panel, and other familiar spots appear on the right. You can also switch the left pane to display a list of recently used applications.

A search bar at the bottom of the menu lets you locate and open applications, folders, and files. A Shutdown link calls up a menu to common commands, such as Restart, Sleep, Hibernate, and Log off. There's even an option to easily run a program or file as an administrator.

You can customize and configure the program directly from the Start menu. This lets you add or remove shortcuts that appear in the menu and on the Windows desktop. A more detailed configuration screen allows you to change the commands and standard folders that display on the menu as well as the font, icon size, background image, column width, and a variety of other options.

If you opt to run the program as a professional user, you can also create Task menus, which give you direct access to specific applications, Web sites, documents, and other content.

You can download a free 30-day trial copy of StartMenuPlus8. The standard version, which includes all features except the Task menus, costs $4.99. The professional version, which throws in the Task menus, runs $9.99.

StartMenuPlus8 offers an array of features and options, almost too many. I found the program a bit confusing, not so much using it as configuring it. Having to choose from among four different user roles just to launch the software was unnecessarily cumbersome. And the more detailed configuration screen seemed cluttered with too many options facing you all at once.

If you're looking for a simple, no-frills Start menu, there are better choices here. But if you're willing to spend the time learning and customizing StartMenuPlus8, you may want to give the trial version a spin.

Start Menu Reviver
Start Menu Reviver Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Start Menu Reviver
The free Start Menu Reviver attempts to bridge the "Modern" world with the familiar desktop world and pulls off the feat quite nicely. Clicking on the program's Start Button brings up a menu chock full of goodies with access to all of your Windows 8 applications, settings, and files.

Icons on the left side of the menu point you to your apps, Windows settings, the Windows 8 Search tool, the Run command, and recently-accessed files. Clicking on the Apps icon lets you choose to see all of your apps, only desktop apps, or just Modern apps. You can view your Start Menu folder, My Documents folder, recent items, or even a random folder of your choice.

A Tasks icon easily brings up the Windows 8 task switcher so you can jump from one Modern app to another. The Settings icon offers access to the Control Panel, Command Prompt, Device Manager, Services, System Properties, and Windows Updates.

Icons running down the middle of the menu link to the My Computer folder, browser, the Windows 8 Start screen, your e-mail, calendar, and a host of other apps. You can also search for an app directly by typing its name in the search field.

Start Menu Reviver lends itself to customization. You can remove icons for apps that you don't need and add icons for apps that you use more frequently. You can also add Web site icons and sort each menu of icons in alphabetical order.

The program offers a quick but helpful series of tutorials explaining how to use its features. Video clips show you how to navigate the menu via either mouse or gestures, a useful idea since the menu itself works equally well on a traditional PC or a touch-screen device.

Start Menu Reviver acts as your gateway to pretty much anywhere you want to go in Windows 8 without having to fiddle with screens, tiles, or charms. It's hard to think of a feature the menu left out, yet it manages to pull it off without feeling too cluttered. For those reasons and more, it gets my thumb's up.

StartW8
StartW8 is a basic but free program that replicates the classic Start menu look and feel. Clicking on the orb triggers the traditional two-pane Start menu with your shortcuts on the left and access to specific folders and other areas on the right.

A Shut Down button offers links to Restart, Sleep, Hibernate, Switch Users, Sign Out, or Lock the PC. You can also right-click on the orb to display several commands, including Run, Command Prompt, and all of the various shutdown options.

You can choose which items you want to appear in the Start menu, such as your personal folders, documents, Control Panel, Devices and printers, and the Run command. You can also tell the program to automatically bring you to the desktop after you log into Windows.

StartW8 doesn't offer much in the way of customization or advanced features. But that's fine if all you need it a simple Start menu.

StartMenu7
StartMenu7 Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

StartMenu7
Also known as StartMenuX, this utility lets you customize the look, feel, and functionality of its flexible Start Menu.

You can resize the menu to take up as much or as little room as you want. You can right click on any folder or shortcut to access a pop-up menu of commands. You can change the Windows orb between the classic Windows 7 look and the newer Windows 8 logo. There's even an option to set up virtual groups to organize your shortcuts.

The traditional Run and Search commands are available. And a Power Control panel displays options to Shut Down, Restart, Hibernate, Sleep, and even Undock.

You can even skip the Windows Start screen entirely and boot directly into the desktop. The program supports traditional PCs and touch-screen devices, so you can further alter its behavior depending on which device you use.

StartMenu7 is available as both a free version and a $20 Pro edition that offers even more features and customizations.

ViStart Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

ViStart
Published by Lee-Soft, ViStart displays the familiar Windows 7 orb. Click on the orb, and up pops ViStart's Start menu with your folders and shortcuts on the left pane and links to popular Windows features and locations on the right.

The search field lets you find the name of any application or file. A dedicated shutdown button offers access to Shut Down, Restart, Log off, and Hibernate commands. And ViStart plays nicely with the new hot corner -- you can still access the lower-right thumbnail to switch between your last two open Windows 8 apps.

You can opt to bypass the Windows 8 Start screen if you wish.

ViStart presents one obstacle, though. I couldn't find a way to organize my Start menu. Right-clicking on a folder or other item had no effect. And I couldn't locate a folder where ViStart stores its menu shortcuts. So there seems no way to customize the menu. The ViStart FAQ confirms that no right-click support is available, but that the feature is on the drawing board for a future version.

ViStart is a simple and quick way to get back the Start menu, as long as you don't mind the inability to customize the menu.

Win8 StartButton
Win8 StartButton Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Win8 StartButton

Win8 StartButton's menu looks just like the one offered by Classic Shell. But that's no coincidence. This program is simply a recompiled take on the open-source Classic Shell, which the developer acknowledges.

Like Classic Shell, Win8 StartButton lets you tweak the look and feel of the Start menu with several customizable features. Clicking on the program's Start orb displays the usual two-pane menu with access to your programs and folders and commands for search, run, and help. You'll also find options to Shut Down, Restart, or Hibernate your PC.

Right-clicking on the orb leads you to a Settings window where you can change the layout of the menu and a variety of other features. For example, you can disable Windows 8 hot corners if you wish, add or remove commands in the menu, and change its skin.

Win8 StartButton is a handy program with a basic Start menu and several ways to customize advanced features. But you might as well stick with Classic Shell.

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