Friday, March 2, 2012

Where Is The Start Menu In Windows 8?

Ever since the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 became available two days back, the maximum complaint that most users daring enough to test the new OS have come up with – no Start Orb (or menu, or button, whichever you prefer). This aspect of the new OS became even more erratic than before, since the Developer builds of Windows 8 did come with a Start Menu of sorts, but with the Consumer Preview (Microsoft’s terminology for a beta), it got stripped out completely. Instead, what you now get is a beautiful, alive and convenient – yes, very convenient – Start Screen, ready to serve all your Windows’ experience needs. Don’t get me wrong here; the first time with Windows 8 was equally frustrating for me as it may have been for you. After all, we’d been used to the Start button and menu since the time of Windows 95 (as far back as I can remember getting my hands on a computer), and although it evolved over time through Windows Vista and Windows 7, it was still far from perfect. With Windows 8 and its Start Screen, Microsoft has redesigned the whole concept of app launching and switching, making it smooth for users of all types of hardware running the OS, and not just catering to the PC genre. The software giant has defended this move quite thoroughly earlier, and after having dealt with the absence of Start Menu for a couple of days, I personally feel quite at ease with it. Before I present my case, let us a take a look at why Microsoft decided to go so radical on the Start orb anyway.
StartUntil a few years back, touchscreen interfaces were hardly something one could call mainstream, and even more so for computers. All that changed too rapidly, and in today’s world, look around and you’ll see yourself surrounded with touch-input panels; be it internet kiosks at airports, ATM machines, filling stations and so many others of the like, they all interact through direct human input, i.e., touch. The advent of smartphones and tablets helped cement this mode of interaction even further, and computing, too, began to embrace it. Granted, touchscreens in PCs aren’t mainstream by any measure, but one thing has been established: touch interfaces are the future, even for desktops. Did you notice that at MWC 2012, Microsoft used a touch-panel interface to showcase Windows 8 Consumer Preview? The move from Start Menu to Start Screen is partially aimed at bridging this hardware gap.
If you’ve had the experience of playing with Windows 7 on a touchscreen, you can totally relate to my saying that it was a nightmare. Windows, until now, was not designed for a touch interface, and the Start Menu made the task even more complicated and frustrating, owing to the small size of menu items and further options. With the Start Screen, you get a perfect touch optimized interface, complete with large tiles, easily readable text, and quick glance at everything you can do with your computer. Convenient, for sure. Now, before you get into a rant about Microsoft’s apparent bias towards tablets and touch interfaces, and blatant ignorance towards the fact that majority of PCs in the world still lack the aforementioned, let us analyze what the Start Menu was. It was merely a collection of all your installed programs, a search/launch bar, a shortcut aggregator and a point where you got to for getting anything done on your machine (hence the name Start). If you consider it, Start Menu was there because the whole of Windows operating environment was a jumbled up mess, and Start only served some of the organization that you could do for easily locating items rather than rummaging through folders to find the right one. Enter: the revamped Start Screen!
StartScreen_Windows_8With Start Screen, you no longer have a static aggregator of shortcuts. You get a functional, aesthetically pleasing menu with large tiles (no more small, single-lined items) that come alive with notifications, giving you a complete glance of what’s happening in your digital world, all delivered through an interface that’s easy to use both with and without touch. The large tiles make it easy to find the right app/item, and live tiles let me see, for instance, the latest email that I received, the current weather in my location, latest online activity from my friends and loved ones, and more. I can easily launch any app that I have pinned to the Start Screen, and for those that I haven’t, there is the convenient global search that kicks in as soon as I start typing, without going through the need of selecting anything (check out our detailed guide on all you need to know about resizing, grouping and managing app tiles in Windows 8). All of this at the mere press of the Windows key on my keyboard (or moving my mouse to the lower-left corner of the screen), instead of the ugly old Start Menu with static icons and text. Then, even navigating the screen isn’t difficult.
For touch devices, you get swipe gestures, as you would on any smartphone. If you’re using it with a mouse, use the scroll wheel. It’s a breeze, really; no lags, and it responds just fine. Remember when you used to pin items on the old Start Menu? Pin too much of them and all the space started looking cramped up. Well, not any more, as with the Start Screen, you can pin as many shortcuts as you like – both Metro and Desktop apps – and they won’t face any cosmetic degradation. They’re easier to find, and usable for both PC and tablet users. Another key function that the Start Menu provided, was turning the computer on and off. For that, and other functions of the like, you get the Charms bar, easily accessible through Win+C hotkey combination, or by hovering your mouse over the top or bottom right corners of the screen and sliding it. The power options are embedded deep, true, but that’s because Windows 8 systems are designed to remain on most of the time, hardly ever needing a reboot. A trade off in favor of tablets, I must say, but not an unwelcome one.
Charms_BarThat’s about it. Microsoft removed the Start Menu and the Orb, but in turn, gave us something totally unique and fresh, not to mention functional. As with any change, users are reluctant to accept it, and the Start Screen suffers the same reaction. Once we’re past that, we’ll get to realize, I am sure, that it was for the good, and while Start Menu served us well for years, the time has come for it to retire, and for good. What do you think about this new change? Don’t forget to drop us a comment and share your views!