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When Windows 8.1 ships tomorrow, the Start button returns with it—but if it’s the Start menu you miss, you’ll still need one of these utilities. They bring back the classic pop-up menu that Windows 8 summarily removed, and they add extra features and customization that Microsoft never thought of. Most are free, and the only one that costs anything is well worth its extremely low price. Whether you make the jump to Windows 8.1 immediately or wait a bit, there’s really no point in waiting to enjoy these enhancements to your Windows experience.
Just give me the Start menu
Clicking the Start button just puts you into the Windows 8.1 Start page—but fortunately, programs that bring back the classic Start menu still work. The simplest of the programs I tested are Stardock’s $5 Start8, IOBit’s free Start Menu 8, and ReviverSoft’s free Start Menu Reviver.
All three produce decent facsimiles of the Start menu, but Stardock’s Start8 does the most accurate job of reproducing it. Start8 is still very useful under 8.1, offering a choice of the Windows 7 look-alike Start menu or the new Windows 8 Start page.
It’s easy to switch between the two approaches. You don’t get the same amount of control that you get with other menu programs, though. You can’t configure the look and feel of the menu very much, and you can’t create custom shortcuts.
Start Menu 8 performs similarly to Start8, producing a decent reproduction of the Windows 7 Start menu. It lacks some of the design polish of Start8, but its nice extra touches include the ‘Switch to Metro’ button that takes you to the Microsoft Start page, and the MetroApps option, which provides direct access to apps that use only the Windows 8 Metro interface. These make it a little more useful for those who want to bridge the gap between the two versions.
Start Menu Reviver, as the name suggests, also brings back the Start menu, but it dispenses with the past and instead adopts a look that’s in line with the Modern design style of Windows 8 itself. It doesn’t take over the desktop—the Microsoft Start page is still accessible as one of the tiles.
The most interesting feature in Start Menu Reviver is the ability to create and tweak tiles. You can create a tile for any installed program by dragging and dropping its icon onto the menu itself. You can also easily move, resize, or delete existing tiles, making this new style menu very easy to customize.
For anyone looking simply to replicate the Windows 7 Start menu, Start Menu 8 is the simplest and most flexible option. But Start Menu Reviver impressed me: It feels more like a Windows 8 program, and it provides a lot of flexibility. And it’s fair to say that all of these programs do a better job than Microsoft itself of making Windows 8.1 easier to use.
Delicious tidbits not on the usual menu
The free Classic Shell and Pokki go beyond adding a Start menu, offering extra features that actually improve the Windows experience. In fact, both of them predate Windows 8, making them the only programs here that you can test-drive on an earlier operating system.
Classic Shell 4.0 adds a number of new features to Windows 8.1, including a customizable Start menu, enhancements to Windows Explorer, and tweaks for Internet Explorer.
Classic Shell’s Start menu offers three designs: a classic, Windows-XP-type design; a two-column, Vista-like design; and a Windows-7-style Start menu. The Start Screen of Windows 8.1 isn’t completely replaced, though: Instead, Classic Shell pins the Start Screen at the top of the Start menu and lists all of the programs from that screen as menu items under All Programs > Apps.
If you would prefer to add to rather than replace the new Start button, Pokki creates an alternative way to start programs. In Windows 8.1, Pokki works alongside the returning Microsoft Start button, adding a button called Home. This brings up the Pokki menu, which offers a customizable list of program shortcuts, as well as a few familiar options from the pre-Windows 8 Start menu.
Pokki also offers a range of free programs (such as Angry Birds and Instagram client Instagrille) that you can install with a single click. You can pin any installed program to a spot on the home menu, which can hold up to 25 program shortcuts per page (there are four additional pages available, for a total of 125 shortcuts). If you don’t want to scroll between pages, a text window at the top of the menu allows you to search by name: Just type the first letter, and the list of shortcuts that begin with that letter show up.
Overall, Pokki still provides an excellent accompaniment to the Microsoft Start menu and Start page, allowing you to start programs faster and more efficiently, and install new ones quicker and easier than you could via Microsoft’s own App Store.
These apps smarten the Start in Windows 8.1
When Windows 8.1 was first announced, we thought these apps might be finished. But that’s not happening: Microsoft’s poor compromise of linking the Start button and the Start page still leaves a features gap that these utilities address.
These five apps offer a solution that Microsoft itself seems to not understand: Give the users what they want, and the power to tweak it to their requirements.
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