Most power users would be perfectly willing to upgrade to Windows 8 if it weren’t for two things—the tile-based “Metro” interface and the missing Windows 8Start button. While Metro is like a rash in that you eventually get used to it, we can’t imagine getting used to the lack of a Start button. It’s too bad Microsoft didn’t give us the option of using both features, but fortunately, two third-party utilities do. If you want the speed of Windows 8 and your old buddy the Start menu, one of these utilities belongs on your system. Let’s find out which one.
Round 1: Installation
The Stardock Start8 install begins with choosing which style of OS to use for the Start menu, what the button looks like, and options relating to the behavior of the start menu. Once you’ve made your choices, the Start menu reappears and you’re ready to compute. Classic Shell, on the other hand, is much more old school and feels like a registry-tweaking program from five years ago. Once you’ve selected your Start menu style—Classic, XP, or Vista/7—you can choose whether you want to have the classic look be applied to four areas of the OS—Explorer, Start menu, IE9, and the Windows Shell. From there, it installs and—voilà—the Start menu has returned. Both applications offer a hassle-free install, so we’re calling this one a tie.
Stardock’s Start8 is easy to use and lets you pick and choose from a mix of Windows 7 and 8 Start menu styles. It’s well worth the $5.
Round 2: Options
Both apps offer a plethora of configuration options, but Classic Shell offers more tweaks while Start8’s are easier to digest. For example, Start8 presents you with easy-to-use menus that let you choose between bits and pieces of Windows 7 and Windows 8 UI features, such as using the Windows 7 Start menu but opening Metro when the Windows key is pressed on the keyboard. But Start8 only offers two configuration panes with a handful of options in each. Classic Shell offers similar configuration options but lets you tweak every variable imaginable, presenting you with a wall of radio buttons that will instantly bring you back to the days of hacking the delay time for menu animations and other UI tweaks. When it comes to sheer number of options, Classic Shell wins hands-down.
Winner: Classic Shell
Round 3: Functionality
Though Classic Shell wins the prize for offering the most options, Start8 is easier to use since everything is presented in a more sophisticated and simpler manner. Plus, since it costs money, Start8 has a lot more polish (as expected) compared to the freeware Classic Shell. Both apps easily walk you through the Start menu selection process, but once you’re on the other side, Start8 gives you easy-to-understand options and basic tweaks required for an enjoyable Windows experience, while Classic Shell drops you into the deep end of the radio button pool. Both apps offer roughly the same options, and both let you use a Classic Start menu and access Metro, so there’s little functionality lost between the two. We’re choosing Start8 though, because it gives us the options we want in an easier-to-understand interface.
Classic Shell is open-source and free to download, and brings back all the Start menu options of yore, including a Windows XP Start menu.
Click the next page to see which one is easier to use and our pick for overall winner.
Round 4: Ease of Use
At this point the winner of this category is hopefully quite clear, as Start8 is much easier to use and configure than Classic Shell. This is not to say Classic Shell is like a Rubik’s Cube or something, impossible to decipher and poorly coded. It’s not at all, it’s just that we’ve gotten used to UIs that are a bit more intuitive than the “classic” menus we used to wade through into the wee hours of the morning. The downside to Start8’s simplicity and ease of use is that it has fewer options than Classic Shell, but we’re fine with that. Classic Shell also has a “simple” mode that offers just basic tweaks, but once you dive in deeper, things can get somewhat confusing.
Round 5: Price
This category is pretty cut-and-dried, as Classic Shell is free and Start8 costs $5. In the name of rational decision-making, we’re calling this one for Classic Shell, but also feel the need to point out that $5 is still a great price for Start8, as it may just be the best bang-for-your-buck piece of software Windows 8 users ever install. We’re not sure at this early stage how popular, or unpopular, the Windows 8 Metro UI will be, but our guess is that a lot of people will miss the familiar Start button, making these apps essential. And Start8 feels like a fully formed piece of commercial software, whereas Classic Shell is as rough around the edges as you would expect. We’re not complaining—it is free, after all—but one look at it and you know it’s freeware.
Winner: Classic Shell
And the Winner Is…
This is a nail-biter, because both of these apps execute their primary mandate quite well while being easy to navigate and totally affordable. If you just want your old Start menu back, Classic Shell offers a quick and easy remedy to your dilemma, and the fact that it’s free removes all risk from the decision to try it. That said, we prefer Start8 even though it costs $5, because it is so polished that it looks and feels like a Windows Power Toy, and we like being able to open a mini version of Metro, too. It’s also easier to use and configure, and provides more than enough functionality to justify its price.