Adding a Start Menu to Windows 8

For all the world, it looks like Microsoft has mined a concept from a not often recalled series of Windows: 3.x. Then, we had a Program Manager for starting all our applications with no sign of a Start Menu. That came with Windows 95 and I cannot anyone mourning the burying of the Program Manager interface either. It was there in Windows 95 if you knew where to look and I do remember starting an instance, possibly out of curiosity.

Every Windows user seems to have taken to the Start Menu regardless of how big they grow when you install a lot of software on your machine. It didn’t matter that Windows NT got it later than Windows 9x ones either; NT 3.51 has the Program Manager too and it was NT 4 that got the then new interface that has been developed and progressed in no less than four subsequent versions of Windows (2000, XP, Vista & 7). Maybe it was because computing was the preserve of fewer folk that the interchange brought little if any sign of a backlash. The zeitgeist of the age reflected the newness of desktop computing and its freshness probably brought an extra level of openness too.

Things are different now, though. You only have to hear of the complaints about changes to Linux desktop environments to realise how attached folk become to certain computer interfaces. Ironically, personal computing has just got exciting again after a fairly stale decade of stasis. Mobile computing devices are aplenty and it no longer is a matter of using a stationary desktop PC or laptop and those brought their own excitement in the 1990’s. In fact, reading a title like Computer Shopper reminds me of how things once were with its still sticking with PC reviews while others are not concentrating on them as much. Of course, the other gadgets get reviewed too so it is not stuck in any rut. Still, it is good to see the desktop PC getting a look in in an age when there is so much competition, especially from phones and tablets.

In this maelstrom, Microsoft has decided to do something dramatic with Windows 8. It has resurrected the Program Manager paradigm in the form of the Start screen and excised the Start Menu from the desktop altogether. For touch screen computing interfaces such as tablets, you can see the sense of this but it’s going to come as a major surprise to many. Removing what lies behind how many people interact with a PC is risky and you have to wonder how it’s going to work out for all concerned.

What reminded me of this was a piece on CNET by Mary Jo Foley. Interestingly, software is turning up that returns the Start Menu (or Button) to Windows 8. One of these is Classic Shell and I decided to give it a go on a Windows 8 Enterprise evaluation instance that I have. Installation is like any Windows program and I limited the options to the menu and updater. At the end of the operation, a button with a shell icon appeared on the desktop’s taskbar. You can make the resultant menu appear like that of Windows XP or Windows 7 if you want. There are other settings like what the Windows key does and what happens when you click on the button with a mouse. By default, both open the new Start Menu and holding down the Shift key when doing either brings up the Start screen. This is customisable so you can have things the other way around if you so desire. Another setting is to switch from the Start screen to the desktop after you log into Windows 8 (you may also have it log in for you automatically but it’s something that I believe anyone should be doing). The Start screen does flash up but things move along quickly; maybe having not appear at all would be better for many.

Classic Shell is free of charge and worked well for me apart from that small rough edge noted above. It also is open source and looks well maintained too. For that reason, it appeals to me more that Stardock’s Start8 (currently in beta release at the time of writing) or Pokki for Windows 8, which really is an App Store that adds a Start Menu. If you encounter Windows 8 on a new computer, then they might be worth trying should you want a Start Menu back. Being an open-minded type, I could get along with the standard Windows 8 interface but it’s always good to have choices too. Most of us want to own our computing experience, it seems, so these tools could have their uses for Windows 8 users.

A little look at Windows 8

It has been a little while but I have managed to set up a VirtualBox virtual machine in order to take a look at the Developer Preview of the next version of Windows, something that I and others continue to call Windows 8 though Microsoft has yet to confirm the name. When I tried the installation before, it failed on me but that may have been due to having an earlier release of VirtualBox on my machine at that time. 4.1.14 has a preset for Windows 8 and I also happened to notice that it can create virtual hard disks that can be used with competitors like VMWare, Parallels and Virtual PC too. It’s an interesting development but I am left wondering why you’d need to do that when VirtualBox runs on most platforms anyway.

To get back to Windows 8, the installation ran near enough without any intervention apart form stating the language you wanted to use, U.K. English in my case. Starting up the operating system gains you a lock screen that you need to get out of the way so you can log in. It can be dragged out of your way or you can double-click on it or use the carriage return key to get rid of it. Quite why someone thinks it’s a good extra is a little beyond me when a log in screen would suffice. Logging in gets you the new start menu or, as I prefer to think of it, screen. By default, there are a good few Metro apps installed though I decided to rid myself of most of them.

Regarding those apps, one irritation could be that there isn’t that obvious a way to switch away from them to something else. Thankfully, ALT+TAB does seem to work and it has the most instantaneous effect. Otherwise, using the Windows key or hovering over the bottom left corner of the screen to get the menu that brings up the start screen. From the PC user’s point of view, I could see this needing a little more thought because it took a little while for me to figure out what to do. Closing Metro apps isn’t an option either unless you resort to the Task Manager to do so. Microsoft appears to want to leave them open from the point at which you start them until the PC is shut down. It’s a design decision that leaves me unconvinced though, particularly when thoughts of rogue apps running riot on a system come to mind. Then, a stop button could be handy.

There is no start menu as we have come to know it anymore with the start screen replacing it. However, it is possible to limit what’s on there to the software that you use most often an rearrange panels as you’d like them to be. Apart from hosting shortcuts for starting applications, it also acts as a task switcher like the task bar in Windows 7 and there is one of those in Windows 8 too when you jump to the desktop; handily, there’s a panel for that too. Installing Firefox added a panel to the start screen so a little thought has gone into such a common situation and that’s just as well. Still, there’s more work to be done because, currently, there’s no way of changing the background colour of the start screen without resorting to a hex editor or third party tools. Still, you can pick your own picture for the lock screen so things are not all locked down on you.

A preview of IE 10 is included and, apart from the occasional artifact when displaying one of my websites, it seems to work well enough as does Windows Explorer. However, apart from these and a smattering of Metro apps, the Developer Preview does feel barer that previous versions of Windows. However, it does appear that applications like Notepad, PowerShell and the Command Prompt are on there but you need to search for these. That also means that you know about them too so I’d suggest a better way of browsing the applications that are available too. This is one of the weaknesses of Ubuntu’s Unity interface and you need to search in the Dash to find them. Just starting to type in the Metro start screen (and other screens too, it seems) in Windows does trigger the completion of a search box much like what happens in the GNOME Shell Activities screen on systems with GNOME 3. While it’s good to see good ideas being reused from elsewhere, Microsoft might do well to note that you still can browse lists of applications in GNOME 3 too.

Shutting down Windows 8 also seems to be more convoluted than is the case with Windows 7. Logging off and then powering off from the log in screen is one approach and that was my early impression from GNOME 3 too. With the latter, I later was to discover a status menu plugin that added in the option where it was accessible or that using ALT key when clicking the status menu when the plugin wouldn’t work would do what I needed. Without logging off from Windows 8, you can do a shut down using the sidebar that appears on selecting Settings from the menu that pops up on hovering near the bottom left corner of the start screen or the Start button of the task bar of the desktop. Then, look for the power icon and select what you need from the menu that clicking on this icon produces. Of course, you may find that the ALT+F4 key combination when issued while on a clean desktop is the cleanest of all.

All in all, the Developer Preview of the next release of Windows looks fairly usable. That is not to say that there aren’t things that need changing. Apart from this being an early sight of what may be coming to us Windows users, it isn’t unknown for Microsoft to roll back on a radical move to make it more palatable to the user community. After all, it has to watch how it treats the corporate market too. The strong possibility of there being alterations is one thought that needs to be shared with those who are inclined to be losing their tempers at the moment and I have comments with unpleasant language out there on the web (none of that here, please, by the way). As for me, I like to look ahead in order to be forewarned about what’s coming my way in the world of computing. What I have seen so far of the next Windows release is reassuring though there are roughnesses such as PC shutdown and Metro app switching but Microsoft cannot commit commercial suicide either so these have to be fixed. It seems that the world of Microsoft operating systems is in flux with the company’s keeping a firm eye on the world of mobile computing with tablets being a major concern. Others may disagree but I can see Windows 8 working well on conventional PC’s and that’s no bad thing.

Battery life

In recent times, I have lugged my Toshiba Equium with me while working away from home; I needed a full screen laptop of my own for attending to various things after work hours so it needs to come with me. It’s not the most portable of things with its weight and the lack of battery life. Now that I think of it, I reckon that it’s more of a desktop PC replacement machine than a mobile workhorse. After all, it only lasts an hour on its own battery away from a power socket. Virgin Trains’ tightness with such things on their Pendolinos is another matter…

Unless my BlackBerry is discounted, battery life seems to be something with which I haven’t had much luck because my Asus Eee PC isn’t too brilliant either. Without decent power management, two hours seems to be as good as I get from its battery. However, three to four hours become possible with better power management software on board. That makes the netbook even more usable though there are others out there offering longer battery life. Still, I am not tempted by these because the gadget works well enough for me that I don’t need to wonder about how money I am spending on building a mobile computing collection.

While I am not keen on spending too much cash or having a collection of computers, the battery life situation with my Toshiba is more than giving me pause for thought. The figures quoted for MacBooks had me looking at them though they aren’t at all cheap. Curiosity about the world of the Mac may make them attractive to me but the prices forestalled that and the concept was left on the shelf.

Recently, PC Pro ran a remarkably well-timed review of laptops offering long battery life (in issue 205). The minimum lifetime in this collection was over five hours so the list of reviewed devices is an interesting one for me. In fact, it even may become a shortlist should I decide to spend money on buying a more portable laptop than the Toshiba that I already have. The seventeen hour battery life for a Sony VAIO SB series sounds intriguing even if you need to buy an accessory to gain this. That it does over seven hours without the extra battery slice makes it more than attractive anyway. The review was food for thought and should come in handy if I decide that money needs spending.