Walt Mossberg

Two Products for People Who Miss the Old Windows

The face of Windows 8 — the tablet-like, tile-based Start Screen that comes up every time you start a new PC — is nicely designed and works well on touchscreens. But a lot of people hate it. They do almost all of their computing in the traditional Windows desktop environment, which has been demoted to secondary status in Windows 8. And they are annoyed that Microsoft has replaced the familiar Windows Start Menu with the Start Screen in Windows 8.

That means when you want to launch a new app that isn’t pinned to your taskbar, you have to jump back and forth between the desktop and the Start Screen, two radically different user experiences. It drives some folks crazy. They dearly miss the Start Button, which launched the Start Menu, at the left end of the taskbar.

Microsoft is planning a revision of Windows 8, code-named “Windows Blue,” later this year that may smooth out the interaction between the two interfaces. But there’s been no promise that the company is dumping the Start Screen, refocusing on the desktop or restoring the Start Menu.

If you’re a desktop and Start Menu lover using Windows 8, you don’t have to worry about Microsoft’s plans. That’s because ever since Windows 8 emerged in October, numerous third-party utilities have sprung up that restore the Start Menu, allow you to boot the PC directly into the desktop mode and otherwise reassert the desktop’s primacy over the Start Screen. They essentially allow you to use Windows as you always have.

This week, I tested two of these Start Menu add-ons and found each different, but both effective. If you don’t like these, there are many others to choose from.

Start8

This is a $5 utility I found to be the best I tried at simply restoring the old Start Menu. If the price deters you, there’s a 30-day free trial. Start8 comes from a company called Stardock, which makes utilities and games.

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Start8 lets users pin apps to the top of it, show a user picture on it and change the physical Windows key so it launches the Start8 menu instead of the Start Screen.

As soon as I downloaded and installed Start8, the old Start Menu was back. You can choose its taskbar icon — either a Windows 8 logo, the Start8 logo or a custom image, including ones that resemble the Start icons from older versions of Windows. A nicely designed, easy-to-use settings screen allows you to customize many other features of the Start Menu, desktop and computer.

One huge feature is the ability to boot directly into the traditional desktop once you’ve signed into your PC. So you don’t have to see the new Start Screen at all. This essentially makes your Windows 8 PC behave a lot like a Windows 7 machine. Start8 can be configured to look something like Windows 8’s “all apps” view, if you prefer, but I suspect most users will stick to its default Windows 7 style.

The program allows you a host of other choices. You can pin apps to the top of it, show your user picture on it and change the behavior of the physical Windows key so it launches the Start8 menu instead of taking you to the dreaded Start Screen. You also can disable the various new Windows 8 controls that appear when you perform certain swipes or mouse movements.

What if you want to be able to get to the Start Screen quickly and you’ve disabled all the usual ways to do it? Well, Start8’s menu comes by default with a link at the top to the Start Screen and it lets you directly launch the new-style Windows 8 apps.

Start8 worked very well and was worth $5. The company says it has been downloaded five million times since Windows 8 launched. You can download it here.

Pokki

If Start8 recreates the traditional Windows Start Menu, Pokki aims to modernize it. The free product, from a company called SweetLabs, does restore the Start Menu, but with an updated look and feel, as well as a built-in app store.

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The free Pokki is a window that lists a user’s program categories and recently used apps on the left, and their favorite apps and an app store in a series of panels on the right.

Pokki is a window that lists your program categories and recently used apps on the left, and favorite apps in a series of panels on the right. These right-hand panels, which you can flip through, resemble the screen of a smartphone or tablet, with apps represented by icons.

The left-hand side is a list, with major categories for Favorites (the smartphone-type view), All Apps and the Control Panel items.

There’s also an app store, which was Pokki’s main business before Windows 8 came along and opened the Start Menu opportunity. The apps Pokki offers are all free and many are like Web apps with the browser interface removed. I downloaded YouTube and Gmail, which behaved exactly as they did in a browser. Pokki hopes to make money from app developers.

When first installed, Pokki advertises its apps at the bottom of the Start Menu, but you can turn this off. You can’t, however, turn off the icon for the Pokki app store itself, though you can move it. Apps you buy from Pokki are automatically pinned to the taskbar, though you can unpin them.

Pokki also has a smartphone-like notification system, that, in my tests, listed new messages in the Gmail app.

Like Start8, Pokki also allows you to boot directly into the desktop, skipping the Start Screen. You can set the Windows key to open Pokki, not the Start Screen.

To get quickly to the Start Screen, Pokki has an icon at the lower left. You can download Pokki here. The company says the product has been downloaded three million times since Windows 8 launched.

Bottom line: Whatever Microsoft does or doesn’t do later this year, you can get back your Start Menu and desktop supremacy in Windows 8, right now, with these utilities.

Email Walt at at mossberg@wsj.com.


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