Search as you might, you won't find a single bigger source of ire in Windows 8 than the new Modern UI (aka "Metro") Start menu. Defenders of the new full-screen, touch-based app launcher and notifications dashboard claim that Windows users were just as antsy about the original Windows 95 Start menu. Remember all the "Classic File Manager" replacements from that time? All true, but Windows 8's Start menu has thrown many people -- seasoned veterans, early adopters, and new users alike -- for a curve. And Microsoft has been adamant that the old Start menu is gone for good.
But where Microsoft doesn't go with Windows, others almost always do. Even before Windows 8 was released to manufacturing, various third parties were marketing add-ons that promised to restore a little (or a lot) of the classic Start menu goodness to Windows 8.
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Why the Start menu was stopped
By now most everyone knows that Windows 8 was built for a hybrid user base. It's designed to serve the legacy desktop and notebook market, as well as the emerging touch-driven tablet market. Microsoft claims that abandoning the classic Start menu wasn't a casual decision -- that real and substantive issues were involved, and the changes were inspired both by user telemetry and the changing face of computing.
The research Microsoft cited was surprising, to put it mildly; the company said that few people actually used the Start menu. But on top of that were other issues: The growing size of menus was becoming a logistical problem; Modern UI apps and the classic Start menu don't have a way to talk to each other; and most crucial, the old Start menu wasn't optimized for touch interfaces, not least because it was too small to use effectively on a touchscreen.
Whatever the rationale, the new Start screen turned out to be a bigger thorn in people's sides than Microsoft realized. Users reacted with a litany of complaints: The new Start is too touch-focused. The constantly updating live tiles are too distracting. Type-to-search is far less useful than before. It takes far more clicks to do certain things. Too many features are now hidden too deeply. And so on. In short, many longtime users feel they've been thrown under the bus.
In search of a better Start
The Windows 8 add-ons profiled here shove the obtrusive and inflexible Start screen aside, offering up versions of the classic Start menu that -- despite their many differences -- operate much like the original. You get a mouse-friendly menu in a manageable area of the screen, where you can access it in context with other items, instead of having to switch contexts entirely.
Most of these Start menu apps provide the option to log in directly to the desktop, bypassing Metro, er, Modern UI. All let you pin apps to their Start menu. Some re-create the old "accordion folder" behavior, where clicking on subfolders in the Start menu exposes additional apps. A few, such as Classic Shell and Power8, take the Windows XP fly-out menu approach.
Many of the apps also take a stab at restoring the classic Start menu's search behavior. Start8, StartIsBack, ViStart, and StartW8 all come very close to reproducing the original search function, which displayed documents, system tools, and other search results in a single, convenient summary view. Classic Shell, StartMenu8, and Power8 aren't as close to the original, but at least they try. Pokki not only restores something like the original search but also augments it with results from around the Web.
If you're looking for a better Start into Windows 8, chances are you'll find it among the nine alternatives explored below. Most of them are free, and none costs more than a few dollars. StartIsBack, Classic Shell, and Start8 stand out as the best of the bunch.