Built-in Start Button Alternatives for Windows 8

win8

One of the biggest shock in Windows 8 is the disappearance of the Start Button, which has been an integral component of Windows since Windows 95. It was my biggest struggle with the OS ever since the Consumer Preview, because in its absence, it is difficult to search for programs that aren’t visible by default, and also for adjusting settings in the Control Panel.

The recommended alternatives at the time are to install third-party apps such as Start8 (which isn’t a freeware) or Classic Shell (free). But I learned my lesson regarding installing such programs, so I settled on braving the new interface. Eventually, I realized that the essence of the Start Menu was mostly retained; basically, it just got reshuffled due to Windows 8’s UI overhaul.

What can you use in place of the Start Menu? These.

I. Start Dashboard

win8We know what you’re thinking. It’s that damned screenshot again. You’d better get used to it, you’ll be seeing more of it in the next few years.

There’s a reason Microsoft removed the Start Button. It wants you to use the “dashboard” instead. It’s not like you can’t already see most of the available programs, and add/remove program tiles to match your preferences. It’s not like you can’t make it appear thru one of several ways: pressing the Win key on the keyboard, clicking the lower left corner of the screen, pressing the centermost charm in the Charms bar or pressing the physical Windows button which started appearing on many new Windows devices. (Pressing it again reverts you back to the previous screen you’re working on BTW.)

Adding existing programs and files (and even contacts from the People app) to the Start Menu works almost the same way, from the right-click menu in the desktop, using the bottom-swipe on Metro Modern apps or once you install the app from the Store or on the desktop.

One of the best things about customizing the Start Menu is the fact that it was too easy (actually, more fun would be the more appropriate term IMO). Remove tiles using the “Unpin from Start” command (it will still be visible in the “All Apps” view, in effect only hiding the app rather than uninstalling it. I have yet to discover, however, how to select an app using touch controls since I don’t have a device to work on). Rearranging apps is as simple as a drag and drop, and some apps can be resized into large or small tiles using the contextual bottom menu also. You can unleash your creative side by installing OblyTiles, which allows you to use custom pictures for the tiles.

 

To give you an idea how difficult it is to change the icon in previous versions of Windows, consider the steps needed for the process:

  1. Right-click the shortcut and select Properties.
  2. In the Shortcut tab, click the “Change Icon” button.
  3. Some programs will allow you to select alternate icons, but typically you click “Browse” to locate your intended icon, which is usually a file with the ICO extension.

In most cases, you need a third-party program to create your own, or you can probably hunt for ICO files on the web.

 

I think the reason for the confusion was due to the fact that whenever I start using a new version, I go to the Start Menu to have a look at Windows stock programs. Obviously, Win8’s new menu displays only preselected programs by default, in order to showcase the new programs such as People Center or the Bing apps. Paint, Wordpad (or Notepad), Task Manager and others aren’t visible prolly because it’s assumed that the average user doesn’t need them (or in case of Paint, to direct users to the App Store to look for alternatives, such as the excellent Fresh Paint. RT users are also in for a treat due to a built-in Modern version of Office apps such as Word and Excel. Color me jealous). In reality, the new Start Menu is equivalent to the “left half” of previous Start Menus, which displays your most frequently used programs, or your favorite programs (which can be added through the “Pin to Start Menu” right-click command in Windows 7 and below).

Start Menu uses the obligatory Modern interface, and the “Live Tiles” feature was actually very addictive. Gadgets are disabled by default in Windows 8 (but there’s a work-around to that), and this feature solves this issue in presenting information at a glance.

II. Search charm

One of the most innovative features of Vista is the dissemination of Search bars in explorer windows and the Start menu, which makes it working with the OS easier. If you want to run a program or file that’s not visible, all you have to do is type away at the prompt, eliminating the need for scrolling to the file or navigating the forest of menus from “All Programs” in the Start Menu. It searches libraries as well, so you can search for docs, pictures or music files just as easily. I wasn’t sure if you can search the Control Panel as well.

So where is this feature in Windows 8? It’s not lost, it was just relegated to a separate control: the “Magnifying Lens” in the charms bar.

The search charm was actually contextual. It searches thru the current program you’re working on but you can just as easily switch to a different program. I did notice that it doesn’t actually open that program if you didn’t perform any queries (such as when you did an accidental swipe). I’m using the Apps button as an impromptu shortcut to “All Apps.”

You can also search using another method. Just open Start and start typing away. The Search prompt will automatically appear.

III. The Hidden Start Right-Click Menu

Normally, if you click the lower left corner, it launches Start. As it turns out, doing a right-click will reveal a menu, the closest thing you got for a Start menu in Windows 8 LOL.

right_click

I’m not a fan of creating a Control Panel or Administrative Tools shortcut in the desktop (but I did so anyway in Windows 8 in the beginning because I need to, I hated accessing the Metro Settings that can be accessed from the charms bar because it seemed to hide a lot of settings and I didn’t realize until the present that you can also use the Search charm to look up Settings). 

In previous versions, I always access Control Panel from the Start Menu, so I always configure the Start Menu accordingly. Now, thanks to this menu, it’s easy to go to the desktop, open “Run” and command prompt, and other tasks. The action for each menu item is pretty much self-explanatory, and it’s accessible anywhere.

I do wonder, however, how it can be accessed using touch controls.

IV. The “Run…” Dialog Box

I was utterly delighted when I discovered that “Run” can be pasted into the taskbar (until now, I ‘m still searching for a way to do this in Windows 7).

It’s a very handy way of launching programs with minimal strokes, and specially since “Run” is now available from the hidden right-click menu. For instance, you can run Internet Explorer just by typing iexplore (similarly, typing in a website URL opens your default browser with the website). There are other commands as well, such as calc, taskmgr, mspaint, command (or cmd), notepad, explorer and others. Type in C: and documents (and also pictures, music, videos) to open folders. I’ve been using this extensively for a long time but I think this program is pretty much under-utilized in terms of usage.

And you can also extend its usage to use your own custom keywords using a trick that I’ve been using since Windows XP.

First, create a new folder on any location (we will need the address so we recommend that you create a TEMP folder directly under C: and make your folder under that folder. For instance, if you created a folder named Shortcuts, the address for that folder is C:\TEMP\Shortcuts\. If you’d rather put the folder in the desktop, the address would be “C:\Users\<user_name>\Desktop\<folder_name>\). This is where you’ll paste the shortcuts. The keyword would be the shortcut name, so if you want to use straightforward phrases, use the applicable name such as firefox, chrome, photoshop, skyrim and windows live writer, for example, renaming when applicable. The same principle is applied if you would rather use fancy names such as opera11beta, myfavoritewebbrowser, FF and mymusicfolder.

var

Now, to register this folder, right-click the Computer icon and click Properties (or any of your preferred way method to open this). On the left side, click “Advanced system settings”. A window will appear. On the Advanced tab, find the [Environment Variables…] button and click it (of course). Scroll thru “System Variables” and find “Path”.

editDouble-click this and navigate all the way to the end then type in the address of your folder. Don’t forget to prefix a semicolon ; before typing it. Save all settings.

Now you can run programs using your own keywords. Add as many shortcuts as you see fit and test them out in the Run box.

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