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Why Windows needs a Start menu

Commentary: The Windows 8 Start screen does offers certain benefits, but the good, old-fashioned Start menu is still the best way to access all your programs and settings.

This screenshot of the "next version of Windows" shows the return of the Start menu. Microsoft

Microsoft plans to revive the Start menu in a future version of Windows, most likely Windows 9, aka Threshold. With the Start screen taking over as the landing page and launch pad in Windows 8, does the Start menu still serve a purpose? Yes, it does, at least in my humble opinion. I still find the Start menu more useful than the Start screen -- especially on a traditional PC -- and I welcome its return.

Let me start off by saying that I don't hate the Start screen. I think it offers a few cool features. One feature I particularly like is live tiles. I appreciate the ability to see my latest emails, news, and other updates at a single glance. My gripe with the Start screen is it just doesn't fit the bill as an adequate launch pad for my applications.

Initially, every application you installed in Windows 8 set up its own tile or tiles in the Start screen. The more programs you installed, the bigger your Start screen would grow. That could quickly lead to a Start screen cluttered with so many tiles that you'd have a hard time finding a particular program.

Microsoft then changed the behavior in Windows so that every application you installed set up a tile in the Apps screen, but not in the Start screen. This requires you to hunt through your Apps screen to determine which programs you want to send to the Start screen.

Neither of the above setups really works effectively. Unless you continually keep your Start screen organized by group and tile, you may struggle to find a specific program. Locating a certain Windows setting or option can also be challenging. You have to figure out whether the option you seek is in the PC Settings screen, in Control Panel, or both. So, trying to find things remains problematic.

Yes, I know you can search for applications, files, and settings from the Start screen simply by typing their name. And yes, that works fine in certain circumstances. But if you don't know the exact name of the item you seek, you still can run into obstacles trying to track it down.

In other words, the Start screen feels like a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

In contrast, the Start menu still feels like home. From the desktop, or more specifically from the Start menu, I can do anything. I can open any program with just a couple of mouse clicks. I can access commonly-used folders, such as Documents, Pictures, and Downloads. I can directly jump to Control Panel, to my Printers, to the Run command, and to a variety of other settings. The Start menu also feels compact and integrated, so it's the place I naturally turn to when I need to do something in Windows.

I also find the Start menu more efficient than the Start screen in one key way.

Let's say I'm working at the Windows 7 desktop and I want to open a desktop application, such as Adobe Photoshop, which has a shortcut in my Start menu. I simply click on the Start orb, open the program's folder, and then click on its shortcut. Quick and simple.

Now let's say I want to do the same thing in Windows 8 where there is no Start menu. I don't have a desktop or Taskbar shortcut for Photoshop because I rarely use it. To open Photoshop, I have to switch to the Start screen. I then have to swipe to the location of the Photoshop tile and click on it. From there, Windows then takes me back to the desktop to open Photoshop.

So in the first scenario, I never leave the desktop. In the second scenario, I have to leave the desktop to access the Start screen to open a desktop program, which then brings me back to the desktop. Hmm, I just don't see that as efficient.

Even further, I may not have a Start screen tile for Photoshop. In that event, I'd have to access the Apps screen in Windows 8 to click on the tile for the program. Yes, you can open a program from the Start screen simply by typing its name. But let's say the program I want isn't Photoshop but some other graphic utility whose name I can't quite remember. In that case, I'd have to guess at its name to search for it or hunt through the Start screen or Apps screen to find it.

Based on the popularity of all the Start menu replacements on the market, other Windows users likely feel the same longing for the traditional menu. Programs such as Classic Shell, Pokki for Windows 8, RetroUI Pro, and Start8 deliver the full Start menu experience, and then some, and have found a place on many a Windows 8 computer.

I don't think people prefer the Start menu just because it's familiar. I think they prefer it because it's more efficient.

Now, the traditional Start menu is far from perfect. The menu can easily fall into a long disorganized list of folders and shortcuts. The more programs you install, the more cluttered the All Programs menu becomes, teaming with subfolders and shortcuts for items that you may not even need. In Windows 7, such a setup forces you to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling down until you find the folder or shortcut you want.

In my article on how Microsoft can improve the Start menu, I suggested Microsoft devise a tool that can help users easily organize their Start menu Programs folders. Such a tool could offer a step-by-step Wizard interface for basic users as well as a more advanced interface for experienced users. A program called Tidy Start Menu already accomplishes much of this, so Microsoft should be able to cook up its own version.

Based on released screenshots, the Start menu envisioned for Windows 9 will try to work as both a traditional Start menu and a Start screen. You'll be able to access all your desktop applications and settings as well as your Windows apps and tiles from one single spot. No more having to bounce back and forth between two different environments. That seems like a good direction to me.

If Microsoft can pull it off, the Start menu would beyond its traditional roots into something even more powerful and hopefully just as user-friendly.