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How to lock the Windows 7 Start menu (if you really must)

Prevent changes to the Start menu by adding a key to the Windows Registry, or for Win7 Pro and Ultimate users, use the Local Group Policy Editor to block attempts to add, remove, or rearrange items on the Start menu.

Three things I don't get:

  • Face tattoos
  • The popularity of books, movies, and TV shows about vampires and zombies
  • Windows users' devotion to the Start menu

The one thing all three of these mysteries have in common is that they will eventually run their course and fade away -- well, maybe not the face tattoos, at least not without a series of laser treatments.

Since the introduction of Windows 8 late last year PC users have been clamoring for the return of the Start menu. There's more to the widespread disdain for Win8's Start screen than just resistance to change. For years people have begun their workday by clicking the Start button. Why remove the feature entirely?

Reports of the mouse's demise are slightly exaggerated
"Clicking" is the operative word. Most people use a mouse rather than a keyboard or touch screen to operate their PCs. Someday perhaps touch screens, gesture recognition, and other technologies will let our fingers and other body parts do the navigating from screen to screen and app to app -- without extraneous mechanical assistance. But considering the life cycle of the average PC, we'll be clicking mouse buttons for years to come. The mouse is far from an endangered species.

In a post from last February, I explained why I use the Windows key rather than the Start menu for fast access to apps, files, and settings. My personal preference aside, there's no reason why Windows users should be forced to work the way Microsoft or anyone else thinks they should work.

The first rule of software development is to allow users to operate the programs in the most efficient manner. If Windows users want a Start menu, give them a Start menu. And if they want to customize the Start menu and then prevent any changes to it, they should be allowed to do that, too.

No option in Win7 to prevent changes to a customized Start menu
A reader named Matthew contacted me recently to ask how to keep programs from adding their shortcuts to or otherwise rearranging the Start menu:

I'm a very organized person, and I like to organize my Start Menu into simple and intuitive subfolders such as "productivity software," "games," and "multimedia." However, Windows has never seemed to appreciate me taking such liberties. Every time an update is installed, it will recreate that program's subfolder of shortcuts where it [was located originally] instead of where I moved it. It's not so much Windows updates as any program updates (Adobe, QuickTime, Windows Messenger, OpenOffice, my video drivers, whatever). It's done the same thing all the way back to Win 95. It's very annoying. Is there any way to take charge of the situation and force Windows to place [Start menu] icons only where I want them?

Windows 7 provides dozens of ways to customize the Start menu. Unfortunately, the Home Premium version of Windows 7 requires a Registry edit to prevent changes to the Start menu by programs or users. An option in the Group Policy Editor that is included with the Professional and Ultimate versions of Win7 lets you disable unauthorized Start menu changes.

One of the fastest ways to add a program or file shortcut to the Start menu in all recent versions of Windows is to drag the shortcut to the Start button, hold it there until the Start menu opens, and then drop it where you choose when Pin to Start Menu appears. You can also right-click a shortcut and select Pin to Start Menu.

To access Win7's Start menu customization options, right-click the Start button and choose Properties. The Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog opens with the Start menu tab selected. From this screen you can change the action performed by your PC's power button, and prevent recently opened programs and files from being displayed on the Start menu.

Windows 7 Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box
Windows 7's Start Menu Properties dialog lets you change the function of the power button and prevent recent items from being displayed on the menu. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Click the Customize button at the top of the window to open the Customize Start Menu dialog box. Select the items you want to display on the Start menu and choose whether to view them as links or menus. The third option for most entries is not to display the item at all.

Windows 7 Customize Start Menu dialog box
The Customize Start Menu dialog in Windows 7 lets you show categories of items as links, menus, or not at all. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You'll find a complete description of the Windows 7 Start menu customization dialogs on the Microsoft TechNet site.

Two ways to lock down the Windows 7 Start menu
Windows 7's built-in Start menu options don't include a way to lock the Start menu, but you can add this ability by editing the Windows Registry. CCM Benchmark Group's Kioskea site describes a Registry tweak that promises to prevent users from adding, removing, or changing the items on the Win7 Start menu.

Note that locking the taskbar refers to preventing users from repositioning the taskbar on the screen rather than blocking changes to taskbar contents. To lock the taskbar, right-click it and choose "Lock the taskbar."

Note further that unless you're like Matthew and have spend a good deal of time and effort customizing your Start menu, these system changes may be more trouble than they're worth. If you're like me and rarely access let alone change the Windows 7 Start menu, you're better off leaving your Start menu and other Windows settings as they are.

And most importantly, before you make any changes to the Registry, create a system restore point so you can revert your PC to its previous state if anything goes awry. To create a restore point in Win7, click Start > Control Panel > System > System protection, and choose Create. (Or press the Windows key, type "system protection," select "Create a restore point," and click Create.) You may be prompted to enter an administrator password at some point.

Once the restore point is created, press the Windows key, type "regedit.exe," and press Enter. Navigate in the left pane to this key:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER > Software > Microsoft > Windows > CurrentVersion > Policies

If there's an Explorer key under Policies, select it. If there's no Explorer key, choose the Policies key in the left pane and click Edit > New > Key. Type "Explorer" and press Enter. Highlight the Explorer key and select Edit > New > DWORD (32-bit) value. Name the new value "NoChangeStartMenu" and set its value to 1.

The change will take effect after you close the Registry Editor and restart the PC. To undo the Start menu lock, return to the Explorer key and set the NoChangeStartMenu value to 0.

Since Matthew uses the Ultimate version of Windows 7, he has another option for preserving his custom Start menu arrangement. Press the Windows key, type "gpedit.msc," and press Enter to open the Group Policy Editor. Navigate in the left pane to this location:

User Configuration > Administrative Templates > Start Menu and Taskbar

In the right pane, navigate to "Prevent changes to Taskbar and Start Menu Settings.

Windows 7 Ultimate Group Policy Editor settings
Win7's Local Group Policy Editor provides an option for disabling the ability to change the taskbar and Start menu. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To enable the "prevent changes" option, double-click the entry in the right pane and select Enable in the resulting dialog box.

Enable/disable Windows 7 Ultimate Group Policy Editor option
After you enable this Group Policy Editor entry, the options to change the taskbar and Start menu settings will be grayed out. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

I wasn't able to determine whether the Registry edit and Group Policy Editor setting prevent program installers and updaters from adding to or rearranging the current Start menu alignment, with or without the user's permission. Nor did I test a third-party Start menu replacement such as the free Classic Shell to see if it offers a way to lock the Start menu.

Late last year, CNET's Lance Whitney reviewed Classic Shell and several other Start menu replacements for Windows 8, most of which also work with Windows 7.

A triumphant Start menu return? Don't hold your breath
The reports that surfaced last week about Windows 8.1 bringing the Start button and Start menu back may have been premature. In a post last week, CNET's Mary Jo Foley described users' wish list of features for Win8.1. Yesterday Lance quoted The Verge as stating version 8.1's Start button would simply lead to the Start screen.

I imagine the decision to do away with the Start menu in Windows 8 saved Microsoft some money because the company had to know the decision wasn't going to improve its satisfaction rating with customers. As more popular features are dropped, er, enhanced away in future Windows releases, people will be less willing to pay a premium for the Microsoft brand.

The worse Windows looks, the better Android, Chrome, Linux, and iOS look.