For whatever weaknesses it may have, the Start menu has been arguably one of just three or four elements which have defined the Windows desktop interface since 1995. In fact you can usually identify the exact version of Windows a computer is running by simply examining the Start menu's appearance. For more than a decade it expanded both figuratively and literally to the point where you could access nearly every setting or feature in Windows from its confines. That expansion had all but stopped in Windows 7, and in fact some people would argue that Start menu was a step backwards.
If Microsoft's history tells us anything it's that they design every product to sell another product. For many years that meant Windows was designed as a host for Office, not surprising since those product lines were their biggest money makers. In Windows 8 the focus has shifted to the Windows Store which by extension means the Modern UI. Moving almost everything from the Start menu serves two purposes. First it pushes desktop users to the Modern UI regularly to reach the missing Start menu items. It also ensures tablet users won't have to leave the Modern UI unless they're actually running a desktop program.
Of course every version of Windows over at least the last decade and a half has taken away popular features which could easily have coexisted with whatever replaced them. This time, though, they have taken out the Start menu but haven't really replaced it with anything - at least not in the same UI. Now anyone, from power users all the way down to complete novices, can take control of their own Windows experience by installing your own Start menu software. You can choose a Start menu that emulates a specific version of Windows, offers features from multiple versions, or even adds features never available from Microsoft.
Classic Shell & Start8
A thorough review of every possible Start menu replacement for Windows 8 would take at least a week to write and possibly just as long to read. Instead I'll be focusing on just two programs, Classic Shell and Start8
I chose Classic Shell & Start8 primarily for two reasons. The first was price. Classic Shell is free, obviously the best possible price, but for a commercial program Start8's $4.99 pricetag is extremely reasonable. Next was maturity. Classic Shell is one of the oldest of the Start menu replacements, having originally been designed for customizing the Windows Vista Start menu to restore the Windows XP interface. While Start8 was developed specifically for Windows 8, it comes from Stardock, a company already known for their UI customization tools like WindowBlinds, ObjectDock & Fences.
Finally I wanted to make sure to include both a free & a commercial option. While a lot of people naturally gravitate to free software for obvious reasons, others feel just as compelled to stick with payware. Some people just expect commercial software is going to be more stable or better supported. For others it's simply an issue of trusting an established vendor. I won't address any those issues but will attempt to explain why a commercial product may (or may not) be worth choosing over a free alternative.
Before I talk about Classic Shell a disclaimer is probably in order. I'm a compulsive interface tweaker, & I've been making extensive use of Start menu customization options for more than a decade. That's partly a reflection of the amount of time I spend on my computer & the wide array of programs I use. I manually organize my program shortcuts into folders, set the Control panel option to display as a sub-menu rather than opening in a window & remove unwanted options like recently opened documents.
Of all the UI enhancements I've ever used, which is more than I can remember, Classic Shell is far & away the most impressive. Using just the basic settings you can quickly configure a Start menu that looks & feels almost exactly like those found in Windows Vista or Windows XP. You can even revert to the older single column style interface. In fact aside from its unique Start button most people would have to look pretty hard to notice it's not an actual Microsoft Start menu.
At the same time it offers a level of customization far exceeding anything Microsoft has offered in any version of Windows. You can quickly & easily customize everything from the delay before opening a submenu when your mouse pointer hovers over it to the sounds you hear for various Start menu related events. In fact there are so many customization options (in the Advanced configuration view only) that it could take hours to figure out what each one does if not for the extremely helpful tooltips included for each & every one.
Most significant for me (keep in mind my previous disclaimer) was the ability to completely rearrange the order various items appear on the toolbar, completely remove literally anything I want, & even add completely custom menu entries. The interface is similar to those used for building custom toolbars in many Windows programs for more than a decade. In fact it reminded me a lot of creating custom toolbars in the pre-Ribbon versions of Microsoft Office. You can put pretty much every item on the Start menu in any position in the menu.
That feature alone was enough to convince me not only that Classic Shell should be a baseline to compare all other Start menu replacements against, but also that it would be ideal in Windows 7. If you have ever looked at the Start menu & thought how much better it could be if you could just add or remove one or two particular items this should be a dream come true. You can even add custom commands for functionality above & beyond what even the developer considers essential.
Don't get the wrong idea. For all its features Classic Shell's interface is consistently simple & straight forward. It's not quite perfect. From time to time you may find yourself customizing a feature only to find that it doesn't apply because some other setting removes it entirely. It would be nice if there were better intelligence built into the interface to avoid that. On the other hand that's really my only complaint so it's hard to complain.
In addition to its Start menu related features Classic Shell also includes enhancements for the File Explorer (actually its original purpose) as well as Internet Explorer 9 & 10. For Windows 8 it also adds options like bypassing the Start Screen during login & disabling corner hot spots so you don't accidentally open the Charms Bar or Modern UI task switching interface. Of course those are pretty much standard features for all Start menu replacements.
With the bar set so high by a free program like Classic Shell, it's hard to imagine what Start8 could offer to justify being payware. Maybe you just feel more comfortable with commercial software or perhaps you already own other Stardock UI enhancement programs & feel loyal to, or even just comfortable with, the brand. In fact if you have an Object Desktop subscription it doesn't even cost you any extra.
Setting those considerations aside & comparing Start8 to Classic Shell purely on the basis of what (and how much) they can do there really is no contest. Start8 is easy to configure & offers more or less the same functionality for disabling Windows 8 hot corners if they get in your way. In terms of customization, however, it's simply not in the same league as Classic Shell. In its basic Windows 7 style Start8 simply restores the Start menu interface from Windows 7. Options for customizing it, beyond what Microsoft offered in Windows 7, are pretty much limited to cosmetic changes, & even those are extremely limited.
That's perhaps a little strange considering how many tools Stardock sells to customize just about every other element of the desktop UI. It seems like they were so afraid of devaluing their other tools, most of which cost twice as much, that they didn't even bother to check on anyone else's products. If history is any indication that's exactly the wrong move. The market for Windows 8 Start menu replacements isn't the same one that programs like WindowBlinds & ObjectDock dominate. It's an entirely new market where Classic Shell seems to have already taken a commanding lead.
In fact there's really only one feature in Start8 I found particularly interesting & that's an option to use the Windows 8 Start Screen as an alternate Start menu. It was literally the last Start8 option I tested & also the most original. This could be the feature which potentially makes Start8 worth the money, at least for a very specific (and probably very small) group of Windows 8 users.
If you are using Windows 8 on a tablet & happen to use a lot of desktop applications via the touch interface you might find what Stardock calls the Windows 8 style Start menu useful. When you click the Start button with this option enabled the Start Screen, or rather a portion of the Start Screen is appears rather than the traditional Start menu.
To be honest I really don't know what I think of this interface because I don't have a tablet to test it on just yet. If you are paying for a tool like Start8 to get your Start menu back I can pretty much guarantee you won't want to use it with a keyboard & mouse. Then again if you're using a tablet I'm not sure it offers any real advantage over the default option of switching to the full Start Screen to run a program.
The beginning of an era?
Last week I suggested we were on the verge of a revolution in the Windows desktop UI now that Microsoft has turned their focus to the Modern UI. The more popular Classic Shell gets, the more confident I am we're already seeing it happen. Regardless of how people feel about it now I think the anguish will pass as people come to realize the advantages of separating the user interface from Windows.
Changes to the UI, especially the Start menu, are nothing new. In recent years, though, the changes from one version to the next haven't really served any practical purpose. Considering they lifespan of a modern computer is
Is there really any legitimate justification for forcing you to learn a new Start menu interface to do the exact same things you did with the old one? Do you want to be forced to upgrade the OS on multiple computers just to keep the UI consistent? Most importantly do you really need Microsoft telling you how you should interact with your computer?
I, for one, would rather put my trust in someone like Classic Shell developer Ivo Beltchev. Classic Shell's Start menu isn't just a fantastic option for Windows 8. As far as I'm concerned it's better than any Start menu Microsoft has ever produced.
You know what's really funny? Spending $15 on Windows 8 then reading someone calling spending $5 on a start menu, "reasonable".