I'm not looking forward to Windows 8--and with good reason. If you don't have a touchscreen, there's not much to like about the Interface Formerly Known as Metro. The fact that this hobbled version of the old, familiar desktop user interface lacks the beloved Start menu doesn't help.
But have no fear; the Start menu is here. Two separate utilities add a Windows 7-style Start menu to Windows 8. Since both allow you to boot directly into the desktop, either one can protect you from even looking at "Metro" unless you absolutely have to.
Of the two, Stardock's Start8 most closely resembles the Windows 7 Start menu. You have to dig pretty deeply into the program to find where it falls short--its configurability. Stardock currently offers Start8 as a free beta, and has not yet set the final price.
The open-source Classic Shell is free and will remain so. While it falls far short of Start8 in its Windows 7 mimicry, it's far more configurable.
Each utility has its limits, but either one can make Windows 8 a far friendlier environment for experienced users.
Start8: Stepping up from 8 to 7
Once you install Stardock's utility, Windows 8 will look comfortably familiar. You'll see the old Windows 7 Start menu--with the same look and functionality. You'll discover the shortcomings later.
The final version of Start8 won't come out until October. I tested a beta version that, while available to the public, is not yet ready for general use.
The Start menu looks and behaves remarkably like the real thing. Click the Start orb, and you get the same two panels with the same options. The left panel shows the list of recently used programs, and a right-click gives you the option to pin a program permanently to the top of this list. As with Windows 7, many of the programs have their own recent-files list.
But the resemblance isn't complete. Right-click one of those recent files, and you'll find the appropriate option to pin the file on the Start menu. But--at least with this beta--that option does nothing.
Start8 protects you from "Metro's" Start screen. When you boot, the program brings you immediately to the desktop (you can turn this feature off). You can even launch the new "Metro" apps from Start8's Start menu.
Of course, when you launch one of these apps, it opens in the boxy, two-dimensional style of Windows 8. You can't have everything.
But if you like to configure the Start menu, Start8 will disappoint you. Right-click the Start orb, and you'll find options to disable Windows 8's desktop hotspots and to change the Start orb's look (I like the bear print). But you won't find a Properties option. Start8 offers no way to change the Power button action, or to make Computer or Control Panel display as a menu.
Another configuration shortcoming: You can't drag and drop the contents of the All Programs section. If you want to, say, move all of your photo programs to their own submenu, you'll have to do it the clumsy way: right-clicking All Programs and selecting either Open or Open All Users. And even this method doesn't help you move the Metro apps.
Start8 is largely a take-it-as-is offering. But it can still make Windows 8 feel like home.
Classic Shell: Configure it to be anything...except, perhaps, what you want
The first time you click Classic Shell's Start button (which looks like something jointly created by Microsoft and the Shell oil company), you don't get a Start menu. Instead, the program asks you what kind of Start menu you want: Windows Classic, XP, or Vista/Windows 7.
This is just the first tab of an extremely option-filled dialog box. In Basic mode, it offers three tabs. But if you select All Settings, you get 13. In addition to options familiar to Windows 7 veterans (such as whether documents display as a link or a window), it allows you to change the look of the Start orb, and separately control the main menu and submenu scroll speeds.
You can save your settings as an .xml file, and thereby switch between configurations.
Unfortunately, the Vista/Windows 7 menu behaves more like Vista than Windows 7. Although it displays recently used programs in the left pane, there's no clear option to pin programs to the list. You can effectively pin a program by dragging it below the line (unlike in Windows 7, where the pinned programs are above the line), but this oddly leaves the program in both places.
On the plus side, you can insert a folder below the line, and drag additional programs into what effectively becomes a subfolder. But on the negative side, Classic Shell lacks application-specific recently used file lists--a major advantage of the Windows 7 Start menu that's sorely missed here.
You'll have no trouble organizing the All Programs menu (which Classic Shell calls Programs)--for instance, to place all of your media players in the same submenu. As with Windows 7, you can simply drag and drop shortcuts and folders.
Classic Shell tries to protect you from the Windows 8 Start screen but with limited success. Unless you choose otherwise, it brings you directly to the desktop every time you boot Windows 8. But it doesn't list Windows 8 apps, requiring you to switch from the Start menu to the Start screen (by default, you do this by Shift-clicking the orb) to launch one of the newer apps.
For a program that's supposed to bring you back to a comfortable, familiar way of working on your computer, Classic Shell has a surprisingly long learning curve. But if you want not only a Start menu but also a configurable one, this program is worth checking out.