Best Windows 8 Start Menu

David Murphy

Microsoft isn’t returning the beloved Start Menu to Windows 8 anytime soon. But hope is not lost, thanks to these handy third-party tools!

Beyond all of the colorful tiles; the bolted-on Modern user interface; the giant, full-screen apps and panels; and the inability to boot to the desktop—to name just a few of our gripes—there’s one issue above all others that’s guaranteed to universally frustrate Windows 8 desktop users: the Start Menu.

Specifically, Microsoft’s decision to remove the Start Menu entirely from Windows 8, giving users no recourse for adding it back as an optional alternative or supplement to the Modern UI’s tiled application shortcuts and search tool, which are Windows 8’s means of navigation.

We can fix that.

Perform a simple search for “Windows 8 Start Menu” and you’ll find a smorgasbord of apps with one purpose in mind: bringing back the button at any cost. The last thing you want to do is muck up your Windows 8 installation with a junky program, however—worse, to have wasted your time installing numerous Start Menu apps in an effort to find out which one is best (or prettiest).

Worry not. Your Start Menu is coming back. And with 11 different apps in our Start Menu roundup, we’re going to show you the best free and paid-for ways to get it.

Start Menu Reviver

It’s a Start Buffet, not a Start Menu

We appreciate what ReviverSoft is trying to do with its free Start Menu Reviver app. In many ways, the Start Menu that the app creates is like a miniature hybrid of Windows Modern and a conventional Start Menu. Big, bulky boxes give you access to your computer’s contents, your Internet browser of choice, the Modern dashboard, and what can only be described as a semi-shrunken version of Modern itself for quick app access.

Highlights

  • Packed to the gills with links and shortcuts.
  • Not a ton of configuration options on this one.
  • Start Menu folder structure could be presented much better.

With some tweaking of Start Menu Reviver’s limited configuration options you can create a vague resemblance to the conventional Start Menu. But even then, the app feels like it wastes space—we’d rather see more of our folders and shortcuts at once.

To balance out that annoyance, however, the app features a ton of links to various parts of the OS—and the ability to bypass Modern completely when Windows 8 boots.

www.reviversoft.com

Power 8

We give it a Power 1

Sorry, Power 8 just doesn’t do it for us. First, we hate that there’s no way to assign your keyboard’s Windows Key to pull up this app’s Start Menu instead of Modern. The app is also a bit too thorough when it comes to disabling Modern’s Hot Corners—useful if you want to try and click its tiny Start button without accidentally activating a Windows 8 hot corner, but poor if you want to access any of the hot-corner options.

Highlights

  • Big on pinning, if there’s a small list of apps that you only really ever use.
  • Doesn’t work with your Windows Key; disables too much of Modern with no customizability.

About that Start button—we wish that Power 8 came preconfigured with a larger button than the wee sliver the app stashes on the lower-left corner of your screen. The app’s glowing shortcut text is a bit tough on the eyes, and you’re forced to click a giant “Start Menu” button within the, er, Start Menu, just to access your standard Programs folder. No, thanks.

https://code.google.com/p/power8

Classic Shell

A Swiss Army knife of Start Menu approaches

The freeware app Classic Shell is a bit like using a bazooka to kill a fly. In this case, we commend the carnage. Once installed, the app allows you to slap a Start Menu button directly within Windows 8’s Desktop Mode that can be configured to operate in one of three ways: Windows Classic, Windows XP, or Windows 7.

And, yes, Classic Shell comes with illustrated examples for those who don’t quite remember the differences between the three Start Menu setups.

Highlights

  • A great app for ignoring Modern completely.
  • Highly customizable, with more options than Windows would give you natively.
  • Bonus tweaks to File Explorer, which you can enable and disable at your leisure.

Other fun tweaks the app enables are the much-longed-for ability to bypass Windows 8’s Modern UI entirely in favor of a direct boot to Desktop Mode, a sea of configuration options that you can use to tweak your Start Menu to your liking, and Classic Explorer, which adds some creative visual tweaks to File Explorer itself!

www.classicshell.net

ViStart

Not too shabby, minus its weird name

It might feel a bit jarring at first when ViStart asks you to create a new Toolbar that it’ll use as your Start button, but don’t be scared off by the app’s treatment. You can still tap your Windows Key to launch the new menu—or at least, we could until the Windows Key started loading Modern again (a quick reset fixed that).

Highlights

  • Simple look and feel with a variety of switchable skins and decent display configuration.
  • Scrolling programs menu should be replaced with one that shows all of your programs and folders at once.

ViStart’s scrolling programs menu mimics the conventional Windows 7 Start Menu, and its left-most shortcuts are convenient and customizable—you can even add brand-new ones if you’re down for a little bit of text-file editing. The app lets you bypass Modern upon booting and lets you customize which of Windows 8’s hot corners you’d like to flip on and off—a lovely touch. The app’s search leaves a little to be desired, as you can’t Ctrl-A all of your text and delete it en masse when you want to search for new things.

http://lee-soft.com/vistart

StartW8

Simple, easy, could be a bit more customizable

The no-frills freeware app StartW8 throws up a fairly simplified iteration of Windows 7’s Start Menu within your Windows 8 installation, up to and including the familiar scrollable list of folders and shortcuts buried within its “All Programs” link.

Highlights

  • A few-frills Start Menu app that gives you a classic, compact look.
  • You can’t really manipulate your typical Start Menu shortcuts (our kingdom for a “pinning” option!).

It’s a bit of a bummer that StartW8 doesn’t come with a way to pin most-used shortcuts to the Start Menu itself, or even change the order in which your shortcuts appear on StartW8’s “recent” section.

Nestled within Start8’s settings menu is a useful option that lets Windows 8 skip away from Modern and pull up your Windows Desktop when the OS loads. You’re also allowed to disable Modern’s hot corners in various configurations—we appreciate that Start8 resists an “all or nothing” approach. StartW8 lets you edit the menu items that the app tosses on the rightmost part of the Start Menu, but you can’t customize your own shortcuts.

www.areaguard.com/startw8

Pokki

A lovely looking Start Menu… if it installs

Pokki isn’t so much a Start Menu replacement as it is a kitchen sink of utilities for the social enthusiast. In theory, the app gives you a brand-new Start Menu in Windows 8 that’s packed full of far more than you probably need on your Start Menu, including hooks to an app store that you can use to supplement your Pokki Start Menu with social networking tie-ins, games, and other web-themed fare.

Highlights

  • Start Menu certainly looks pretty, but we’re wary of additional tie-ins.
  • Frustrating installation setup, in that it didn’t work out for us at all.
  • Perhaps Windows 8 (x64) users need not apply?

The problem? It doesn’t work. We had a great deal of trouble getting Pokki installed on our 64-bit system; either the app would install “correctly” and just not do anything (or even give the appearance that it was installed on our system), or the installation program would just hang, and hang, and hang. Trying to uninstall Pokki after an unsuccessful installation informed us that we didn’t have sufficient rights to do so. Argh.

www.pokki.com

Click the next page to read about Start Menu 7 and more.

Start Menu 7

Display all the apps

Boom! That’s the sound Start Menu 7 should make the first time you click its four-color icon and get all of your programs blasted across your screen on one of the largest Start Menus we’ve ever encountered—thankfully, you can adjust the menu’s height and width as if it were a standard Windows… window.

Highlights

  • All of your apps in one giant start menu!
  • Virtual folders can help get your shortcuts a bit more organized.
  • Creating a “Favorites list” of shortcuts is a little annoying.

You can configure Start Menu 7 to load itself, or Modern’s Start screen, via your keyboard’s Windows Key (or Shift + Windows Key combination). Flipping Windows 8’s hot corners on and off is as easy as clicking the available graphic and, yes, Start Menu 7 can bypass Modern when your system boots.

The app comes with five different skins for its Start Menu. More importantly, you can use the app to create “virtual groups” of folders and shortcuts for extra organization. The app’s “pinning” process for sticking shortcuts to the Start Menu could be a bit more streamlined, however.

www.startmenu7.com

StartIsback

A Windows 7 Start Menu with little to no fuss

As an Irish lad, this reviewer does appreciate that StartIsBack uses a shamrock embedded in an orb as the default icon for the Start Menu it jury-rigs into your operating system. Even better, the Start Menu itself looks and operates swimmingly—as if you ripped it straight out of Windows 7 and dumped it into Windows 8. In fact, we’d assume you were just natively running Microsoft’s older OS if you sat us down at Windows 8’s Desktop Mode with StartIsback running. It’s that slick.

Highlights

  • Slick, smooth, and problem-free re-creation of the Windows 7 Start Menu.
  • Tons of configuration options.
  • You’ll have to download a new Start Menu orb if you’re not a big Ireland fan.

StartIsBack comes with a number of configuration options for tweaking the look and feel of your Start Menu. The app also lets you bypass Modern entirely when booting, though it also gives you a host of options for configuring the nuances of Modern’s hot corners.

Our favorite trick? The option that lets you sticky a taskbar within Modern itself. Take that, Windows 8 UI design.

$3, www.startisback.com

RetroUI Pro

More features than a standard Start Menu

We like the look of RetroUI Pro, but some of its raw functionality—and default configurations—leave a little to be desired.

For starters, we hate this Start Menu’s “pinning” feature, which requires you to click into a separate “edit mode” to sticky your most-used apps to your Start Menu. A simple, ever-present “pin” icon could have solved this bit.

We also think it’s weird that Modern apps appear by default within your Start Menu’s All Programs listing, a feature you can thankfully switch off within RetroUI Pro’s settings. You can also configure away Modern’s hot corners, but you can’t specify which you’d like to toggle on or off—it’s all or nothing. At least RetroUI Pro really lets you tweak the links that appear on the Start Menu itself.

Highlights

  • Plenty of customization.
  • Built-in “ModernUI” Start Menu skin is downright atrocious; stick with Windows 7.
  • TabletView gives you more of a visual, Modern-like shortcut list for launching apps.

Additionally, RetroUI Pro’s “Enforce” technology does a great job of sticking your taskbar to the bottom of the screen when you run Modern apps.

$5, http://retroui.com

Start8

Good looks meet powerful customizability

As far as looks go, Start8 presents a very convincing replica of the Windows 7 Start Menu with a few fun twists. First up, switching between that and a Windows 8–themed start menu—a mini-Modern, as it were—is super-easy to do within Start8’s simple configuration app. It’s as easy as changing the skins on the Windows 7 Start Menu, and you get five of those to choose from.

Highlights

  • Powerful functionality (and multi-monitor options).
  • Adding Start Menu shortcuts to custom locations on your system is a breeze.
  • No way to sticky your taskbar to the bottom of Modern.

As an aside, we love how all of your configuration changes occur in real time within the Start Menu—super-useful for testing out particular settings.

Start8 allows you to customize the various shortcuts that appear on the right side of the Start Menu, including adding shortcuts to any custom locations you want. You can set how you want your Windows Key to work and how Modern’s hot corners should run and, yes, Start8 lets you boot right into Desktop Mode, as well. Delightful!

$5, www.stardock.com/products/start8

StartMenuPlus8

This isn’t a Start Menu; this is a punishment

The official website of StartMenuPlus8 looks a bit like a cross between a newbie Geocities site and a seizure, and we’re glad to see that the app itself follows suit—consistency’s important.

Highlights

  • Ugly
  • Impractical
  • We’d rather stick with Modern.

The Start Menu button that StartMenuPlus8 creates on your taskbar is just a standard pinned application. You have to drag it over to the leftmost slot on your taskbar to mimic a start button and, even then, you get no way to disable Windows 8’s hot corners within the app.

It’s hard to describe just how strange this app is, from its less-than-pleasing white-on-black color scheme; to its absurd amount of white space within the Start Menu itself; to the absurd level of unnecessary, difficult-to-parse detail packed into its single configuration window. You can’t fire up the Start Menu and start typing out a search, and some of the app’s own shortcut names don’t even fit on its Start Menu screen. Yuck.

$5, www.winok-msixray.com

Five Other Ways to Tweak Windows 8

If you want to spruce up the look of the rest of your operating system, we’ve got you covered!

It’s been a year and change since the launch of Microsoft’s Windows 8 OS, and it feels as if there’s still a dearth of apps for tweaking the operating system proper—besides all of the aforementioned Start Menu programs, of course. Still, we’ve identified five apps that do a pretty great job of making Windows 8 prettier, at the very least, and in some instances add new functionality that will enhance your new Modern lifestyle. Now that you’ve souped-up your Start Menu, it’s time to tackle the rest of the OS!

ModernMix

If you can’t stand the full-screen takeover brought on by the Modern portion of Windows 8, then ModernMix is worth the cost of lunch. This super-useful app allows you to run Modern apps as if they were standard applications, run in standard windows, right from Windows 8’s Desktop Mode. You can customize the size of the Modern apps themselves—in case you need a huge weather display, but just a tiny window for Skype—and you can pin them to your taskbar for easier access from your conventional desktop.

$5, www.stardock.com/products/modernmix

Decor8

We’re big fans of those grayscale Windows 8 “wallpapers” for Modern’s Start screen—and no, we’re not being sarcastic. Even though they look a bit like someone pulled up their favorite Photoshop brush and went to town for a few minutes, they do add a pleasant aesthetic to Modern’s tiled interface.

But you know us—we like customization. The app Decor8 unlocks the ability to turn any background you want into a wallpaper for your Start screen. You can randomize the backgrounds to set intervals if you want your Start screen to always look new and fresh, and the app will even automatically select a new color scheme for your tiles based on the colors of the background image you’ve selected.

Yes, the Windows 8.1 preview adds this functionality, but it could be an interim solution while you wait for the final version.

$5, www.stardock.com/products/decor8

OblyTile

If there’s one thing we especially detest about Modern’s interface, it’s that system tiles and downloaded apps get all the eye candy and our poor, simple shortcuts get ignored. The freeware OblyTile doles out a little love for your ugly-looking shortcuts by giving you the opportunity to customize them with their own thumbnail image, background color, and text color. Who needs Modern’s tile-grouping functionality when you have color coordination, anyhow?

Free, http://oblytile.en.softonic.com

Chameleon

The customization continues! Now that we’ve successfully freshened up the look of your Start screen, it’s time to give your Lock Screen a little bit of love—assuming you haven’t already used Windows 8’s Group Policy Editor to bypass the Lock Screen entirely. Chameleon, found via the Windows Store, isn’t the most intuitive of Modern apps. However, what it lacks in instruction, it makes up for in comprehensiveness.

Using the app, you can have Windows 8 automatically update your Lock Screen’s background at set intervals and using a number of images from your computer’s photo library or various online sources—including NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day and Bing’s Picture of the Day, to name a few.

Free, Windows App Store


UltraUXThemePatcher

This one’s simple. If you want to be able to install third-party themes within Windows 8 (as in, community-created themes instead of those bestowed from Microsoft directly), you’re going to need to patch your operating system with this simple tool. UltraUXThemePatcher is free, it’s fast, and it even backs up the original files it overwrites in case you need to uninstall the utility for some reason.

Free, http://ultrauxthemepatcher.en.softonic.com

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