Relations here at PC Pro have been a little strained these past few weeks, the main bone of contention being the merits (or otherwise) of Windows 8’s new approach to finding and launching desktop applications. There’s no dispute that, for touch devices, Metro is a workable and even likeable system. But there’s plenty of frustration over the way Microsoft seems determined to force it on desktop users too, to the extent of replacing the Start menu with a full-screen Metro page.
So I’m indebted to reader Neale Killick for bringing to my attention a free little tool called Start8, by Stardock software, which promises to “bring back the Windows Start menu”. Install it within the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and a comfortingly familiar Start orb appears at the left end of your primary taskbar. Click it, though, and what opens isn’t the much missed Windows 7 Start menu – but a miniature Metro Start screen.
Seeing this page overlaid onto the regular desktop is a strange experience. Immediately it brings home just how visually incoherent Windows 8 is, bolting together as it does two quite different interface models and graphical styles.
It makes clear that the old menu was a more efficient means of launching applicationsIt also makes clear that the old menu was a more efficient means of launching applications. Start8 opens helpfully at Metro’s Apps search page, but settings and files remain split into separate categories, which must be navigated manually. Compared to Vista and Windows 7, which searched everything and returned categorised results, it’s pointlessly pedantic, and serves only to bog the user down.
Space for improvement
Things are slowed further by the wide (and non-customisable) spacing of the returned results. Such a layout might make sense for touch devices, but it’s tiresome for mouse users, and it frequently causes content to spill off the side of the window. Bafflingly, the mouse wheel doesn’t scroll across the grid (though it does elsewhere in Metro). Instead there’s a hidden scroll-bar at the bottom of the menu that becomes visible only once you move the mouse over the area – a characteristic expression of Microsoft’s new-found contempt for discoverability.
In fairness, Start8’s shrunk-down Start pane is less distracting than the full-screen incarnation. But it takes up around four times as much screen space as the Windows 7 Start menu, while exposing significantly less content. Where before we had direct access to user folders, system settings and power options, now all we get is options to search within Metro apps. It remains to be seen whether this ability will prove in any way useful.
The eye of the beholder
In a way it’s admirable that, in bringing back the Windows Start menu, Stardock has tried to work with Microsoft’s new interface, rather than seeking to turn back the clock. It’s also thoughtfully provided one feature Windows 8 testers have been crying out for – a convenient Shutdown shortcut, accessible by right-clicking the Start button. But because Start8 mostly repackages Metro, it ultimately does very little to improve the Windows 8 experience.
In fact, Start8 serves as a useful illustration that Windows 8 critics aren’t merely resisting change. By allowing us to try using Metro in the same context as the Windows 7 Start menu, Start8 brings into clear relief some real usability compromises – compromises that affect everyone but Microsoft’s airily hoped-for market of tablet users.