After months of using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview as the main operating system on my laptop, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I actually like the new Start Screen. Well, to be more precise, I guess I should say that I’ve finally grown used to the new interface and that it has not irritated me as much as it did initially when I first tried out Windows 8. The main reason I am writing this article is due to the huge outburst of angry Windows customers and fans over the removal of the traditional Start Menu. Let’s get it clear right now. I am not trying to convince any of you that stumbled upon this article to finally switch to Windows 8. I just want to write my experiences with the new Windows 8 Start Screen from these past couple of months of usage. I’ve written a past article talking about the new Metro UI of Windows 8 and initially, I came away mostly dissatisfied with the start screen. Now that I’ve finally gotten a chance to use the interface for a couple of months, I really don’t see why I would want to go back to the traditional Start Menu. But the new start screen is not perfect and so I still have my issues with it.
When I first begun using the new Start Screen, I initially thought it to be clumsy and inefficient. Then I started to customize the menu a bit by moving the tiles to different locations within the menu and it finally hit me how this new interface can be more advantageous than the traditional start menu found in earlier versions of Windows. One noticeable change in workflow from the start menu to the new start screen is that rather than having to scroll through a long list of programs just to find that one program you are looking for, you now rely on your memory to access those apps. I admit that this fact didn’t hit me initially but the more and more I used the start screen and customized it to my liking, I found that this new way of working is actually a lot more efficient than with the start menu of the past. In fact, there is a lot of logic and reasoning behind Microsoft implementing this new interface and they actually have a couple of very long blog posts going over how the new start screen came to be:
Using the Traditional Start Menu
For most folks, the start menu is a location within the Windows OS that allowed a user to search for and gain access to programs that they have installed on their computer. For most users, I believe this is was the only purpose of the menu. In fact, I am confident enough to say that even many power users use the traditional start menu for this exact purpose. I know it was for me. However, with the advent of the quick launch bar in Windows XP and the taskbar in later versions of Windows, users saw less and less reasons for visiting the start menu because they now have a more convenient way of accessing their most used programs and directories. With a single click of a mouse button, users can now launch their applications without performing any type of search or scrolling of their mouse. As a result of this, the start menu faded a bit into the background. For many users including myself, the start menu was just a place to search for not my most frequently used programs but just the complete opposite: my least used applications. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to pin an icon onto the taskbar because either it wastes space (due to smaller monitor sizes) or that a user has so much applications that they need the space to pin their more important programs.
By choosing not to pin an application onto the taskbar, a user would then have a couple of different choices. Firstly, the user could choose to pin the application within the topmost section of the start menu. By doing so, a user could now have easier access to that less frequently used program and still not have to perform a search or scroll of their mouse. The problem with this is that this section of the start menu limited you to the amount of applications that could be pinned. Also, the more you pinned to the start menu, the more space it took up for your most recently used list. This is because the start menu is not dynamic in size. Secondly, a user could rely on what Microsoft calls the “most recently used programs” section within the start menu. This section allowed Windows to monitor some of your most used applications and dynamically generate a list of those programs right in the start menu. The problem? This feature didn’t always work and I believe even Microsoft admitted to this issue in the past. This list was dynamically generated and so if the program you are looking for isn’t listed, you’ll have to then manually look for the program either by via searching or mouse scrolling and clicking. Thirdly, a user could just slap those applications onto their desktop for easy access. There’s really no problem for doing this unless you didn’t like your desktop to be cluttered with icons. Lastly, a user could use third-party applications. Some include customizing a user’s right-click context menu to creating keyboard shortcuts. Again, there really isn’t a problem for doing this.
As you can see above, there is a consistent pattern. All methods I’ve listed pretty much allowed a user to more easily access their applications. At the heart of things, that’s what you do on a computer! You install applications and you use those applications to perform some type of task. Basically, the start menu was just an application launch pad. Once you’ve found the application you were searching for and launched it, the start menu faded back into obscurity and never seen again until the next time you had to search for an application or you had to type in some commands in the Search/Run box.
Using the Windows 8 Start Screen
With the new start screen in Windows 8, I can now more easily access my applications because of what I said earlier about using my memory. By arranging the tiles that represent my programs in certain places, I can now rely on my memory to move my mouse cursor to those tiles without really having to search for them. For example, with just two mouse clicks, I can open my Thunderbird email client. I first move my mouse to the bottom corner and click to access the start screen. I then instantly flick my mouse to the tile that represents Thunderbird which I know I placed directly atop the Desktop app and then clicking again. I’m then automatically taken back to my desktop with the email client opening. As you can see, this is the same workflow that occurs when using the traditional start menu but accessing my programs is much faster. Because the tiles are appropriately sized, I found myself placing my mouse cursor correctly on the tile of my chosen application initially more times than not. Even if I am off, I can easily readjust my mouse. If you’ve been also using Windows 8, then what I have just described shouldn’t come as a shock. However, if you really take a step back and think about it, you’ll realize some of the benefits that this new start screen brings over the traditional start menu.
Users will also realize that Windows 8 was designed for a touch interface first and mouse/keyboard combination second. Similar to a smart phone, Windows 8 has some design choices that closely resembles it. On my iPhone for example, the first page consists of my most used apps. The second page consists of useful utilities and productivity apps. The third consists of my news apps and the fourth contains video games. In the start screen, I can group similar apps together to better organize things. I can group all my music players in one group, Office productivity apps in another and video games in another. With the traditional start menu, this wasn’t really possible unless you manually created your own start menu directories and placed the application shortcuts inside.
What I Still Don’t Like About It
While it took a while for me to finally get used to the start screen, there are still some things that I don’t like about it.
At the moment with the traditional start menu, when you install an application, that application would be listed in the start menu under its own directory name. Within, all executables and links corresponding to that application can be found. Many a times, however, a user only needs the main executable to launch the actual application. They don’t care about the help files or uninstaller. With the start screen, you most likely have to do a little cleanup after each application installation because those ‘unnecessary’ links would be pinned to your start screen as well. Of course, unpinning those tiles is very easy but this can prove to be a hassle for some.
One thing I just couldn’t get used to no matter how hard I tried though is looking at the ‘All Apps’ screen. Luckily, a user shouldn’t really need to venture here on a daily basis. This screen is sort of like your traditional start menu in that it shows you every application installed on your computer. However, with the start menu, the directories for the apps are collapsed. Only when you need to access a specific app would you click on it and expand it. Here, everything is expanded by default! This screen is needed due to the reason I listed above. Many a times, a user would unpin the other useless icons on the start screen that came with the install of the application. Well, to quickly get access back to those items, you would head into the All Apps screen. What’s my gripe with it? Well, it’s completely a pain to look at! Not only is everything expanded forcing you to view things you don’t care for but you have to scroll horizontally. Like I said in my original article, this makes it very hard on your eyes to find things. You not only have to look left to right but also up and down as well! You could collapse the menu but you would need to do it each time you visit this screen.
Make no mistake about it. In order to get the most out of your start screen, you will need to customize it. By customize, I’m simply talking about rearranging your tiles. While this wasn’t necessary with the start menu as everything was listed alphabetically and with every application listed in their own directory, here with Windows 8 you will need to move things around to reap the most benefits out of the start screen. A little up front work will save you a lot more time in the future. The bad news is that you can’t move multiple tiles at once! While you could select multiple tiles to unpin them from the start screen, you cannot move them as a group. Well, at least no method that I know of.
The Problem Going Forward
Right now, the biggest problem for Windows 8 is how will users adjust to this big change? Windows 8 is launching October 26, which is right around the corner and many users don’t even know what Windows 8 is let alone what it looks like. How will they react? Users have been comfortable using the traditional start menu for the better part of their lives and the Windows 8 start screen pretty much erases all that experience and familiarity. I really doubt those users will take the time to read Microsoft’s 2000+ word blog posts on the reason why they got rid of the start menu! Some lucky people can purely leave all this drama for Microsoft to deal with as it is their product but being a technology specialist like so many others, I’m sure we’ll be called upon sooner or later to explain things. Honestly, I’m getting a little headache just thinking about it.
No matter the case, going forward, Microsoft have made it pretty clear that the new Metro UI and the start screen will be the future for Microsoft products. There would need to be a humongous public outcry from users for Microsoft to make a change in their strategy. No matter the benefits that Windows 8 comes with it, users just can’t seem to focus on anything but the start screen. Like many initial Windows 8 testers, I’ve had my issues with the new start screen. But I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it is indeed superior to the traditional start menu. It’s not perfect but I’m sure Microsoft will improve on it in the years to come.