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.

Do we need to pay for disk partitioning tools anymore?

My early explorations of dual-booting of Windows and Linux led me into the world of disk partitioning. It also served a another use since any Windows 9x installations (that dates things a bit…) that I had didn’t have a tendency to last longer than six months at one point; putting the data on another partition meant that a fresh Windows installation didn’t jeopardise any data that I had should a mishap occur.

Then, Partition Magic was the favoured tool and it wasn’t free of charge, though it wasn’t extortionately priced either. For those operations that couldn’t be done with Windows running, you could create bootable floppy disks to get the system going in order to perform those. Thinking about it now, it all worked well enough and the usual caveats about taking care with your data applied as much then as they do now.

For the last few years, many Linux distributions have coming in the form of CD’s or DVD’s from which you can boot into a full operating system session, complete with near enough the same GUI that an installed version. When a PC is poorly, this is a godsend and makes me wonder how we managed without; having that visual way of saving data sounds all too necessary now. For me, the answer to that is that I misspent too many hours blundering blindly using the very limited Windows command line to get myself out of a crux. Looking back on it now, it all feels very dark compared to today.

Another good aspect to these Live Distribution Disks is that they come with hard disk partitioning tools such as the effective GParted. They are needed to configure hard drives during the actual installation process but they serve another process too: they can be used in place of the old proprietary software disks that were in use not so long ago. Being able to deal with the hard disk sizes available today is a very good thing as is coping with NTFS partitions along with the usual Linux options. The operations may be time consuming but they have seemed reliable so far and I hope that it stays that way in spite of any warning that get issued but you make any changes. Last weekend, I got to see a lot of what that means and I setting up my Toshiba Equium laptop for Windows/Ubuntu dual booting.

With the capability that is available both free of charge and free of limitations, you cannot justify paying for disk partitioning software nowadays and that’s handy when you consider the state of the economy. It also shows how things have changed over the last decade. Being able to load up a complete operating system from a DVD also serves to calm any nerves when a system goes down on you, especially when you surf the web to find a solution for the malady that’s causing the downtime.