Most every longtime Windows user knows the sad saga of the lowly Start menu. Born as a button in Windows 95, modified in XP and Vista, and blossoming into its most usable form in Windows 7, the Start menu anchored the Windows UI until Microsoft foolishly discarded it with Windows 8, sparking an entire cottage industry of third-party replacements. Now two of the leading makers of Start menu alternatives for Windows 8 have released counterparts for Windows 10.
Do you need a replacement Start menu for Windows 10? Some users will find the Windows 10 Start menu to be good enough, but many won’t. Many Windows aficionados yearn for the Windows 7 Start menu, and the two products reviewed here strive to give it to them, pasted on top of Windows 10.
Classic Shell concentrates on providing a close-to-exact replica of Windows 7, and it’s free (formerly open source, now freeware). Start10, from Stardock, takes a few liberties with the Win7 look, which you may or may not like, and costs $5. Both hide the live tiles unless you expressly ask for them. Plus, they throttle Cortana and add custom cascading windows to the All Apps list. Both let you drop back to the Win10 Start menu with a single click.
What’s wrong with Windows 10 Start?
Many users will have no problems at all with Windows 10’s Start menu, shown in Figure 1.
What’s not to like?
First, the live tiles on the right look a lot like advertising (in many cases, they are), and their movement is distracting. You can unpin all of the tiles (right-click), but when you do, you’re left with an ugly black strip that can’t be removed. The Win10 Start menu can be resized, but only in fixed-size blocks.
Second, there is a woeful lack of customization. You can create tiles for programs or folders among the tiles on the right (right-click and choose Pin to Start), but changes on the left side are limited to a list of items that can be added to the bottom of the menu: Start, Settings, Personalization, Start, Choose which folders appear on Start. What you see here is basically what you get.
Finally, the All Apps list on the left is an unmanageable one-dimensional mess, as you can see from the shot of Office 2013, as installed on a bone-stock copy of Windows 10 (Figure 2). You can’t move the entries or slide them underneath other header entries. You can’t even delete them without deleting the app itself.
While Windows 10 has a phone book view of the All Apps list, with tiles for each letter of the alphabet, the fundamental lack of a hierarchy makes the whole thing unwieldy. Heaven help you if you forget that Paint is listed under "W" for "Windows Accessory."
The Classic Shell approach
Developer Ivaylo Beltchev and his team have put a lot of effort into Classic Shell since its release in 2009. It was once an open source product, but Beltchev converted it to freeware after he discovered people were selling it with little or no modification.
Installing Classic Shell couldn’t be simpler. You get a screen (Figure 3) with options to bring back a Windows XP-style Start menu and intermediate two-column menu, or the full-featured Windows 7 look-alike.
If you choose all the defaults, you get a Windows 10 Start menu that’s very similar to the Windows 7 Start menu, sitting on top of the Windows 10 taskbar. (See Figure 4.)
The entries on the left should be immediately obvious to most Windows 7 users, although there’s a quick link to the stock Windows 10 Start menu on top. You can pin additional programs to the top of the left side of the Start menu, just as you can in Windows 7, by simply dragging the program (or folder) to the top left and releasing.
Cortana remains unchanged. The Windows 10 search bar/Cortana still sits at the bottom, to the right of the Start icon, and it’s fully functional. But if you type a search string in the “Search programs and files” box, you get a real, live, old-fashioned search of your computer, not a far-flung Cortana/Bing-fueled search of every matching bit of flotsam on the Internet.
Remarkably, you can pin universal tiled apps to the top of the Start menu. Microsoft Edge, for example, “pins to Start” in all the usual ways. With a click and drag or a right click, you can move it up underneath Start Menu (Windows).
The All Programs link (Figure 5) brings back a bit of nostalgia, with fully customizable, nested menu items.
The entries in the All Programs menu have all the smarts they had in Windows 7. You can drag and drop them anywhere; pin them to the Start menu itself or to the taskbar; or rename or delete them. You can create new folders in the All Programs section (right-click any folder, choose New, Folder), then move apps from one folder to another. Once you move an entry somewhere, it stays put, so you can have Microsoft Office 2013 open up to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, in any order you pick, and stuff all the lesser Office thingies into a rarely opened subfolder.
The Windows Universal apps are all there, too. Look for them in the final All Programs folder, called Apps. Or you can search for them in the Search bar.
Much to Classic Shell’s credit, you can uninstall the app in the usual way. Click Start > Control Panel > Programs and Features, and you end up in the old-fashioned (and still fully functional) “Uninstall or change a program” Control Panel applet. Click on Classic Shell, click Uninstall, reboot, and it’s gone.
The Start10 approach
Start10 is very similar to Custom Shell, but there are important twists.
The main setup screen (Figure 6) includes alternative Start menu layouts that include a Windows 10 style with tiles, and a Modern style that’s something of a hybrid between Win7 and Win10.
When you install Start10, it first asks if you want to hide Cortana (the taskbar search box). Take all of the defaults, and you get a Start menu that looks like Figure 7.
Comparing Figure 7 to Figure 4, you can see a number of differences in the way the Start menu has been implemented. The most used list in Start10, for example, draws on the old Windows 7 most used programs, whereas Custom Shell draws on the existing Windows 10 most frequently used apps list.
Start10 offers many more customization settings, while Custom Shell gives you most of the customizations without asking. In the Start10 customizing menu, shown in Figure 8, you can choose to include or remove the shortcuts at the bottom of the right side of the menu.
Like Classic Shell, Start10 supports full hierarchical menus in the All Programs list, as you can see in Figure 9. But Start10 is much more limited in how those menu items can be manipulated.
For example, in Classic Shell I can drag and drop a program, moving it from one folder to another. Start10 doesn’t have that ability. In Classic Shell, I can right-click on a folder and create a new folder. Start10 can’t do that, either.
More than anything, in Classic Shell I can move a program from, say, the bottom of a folder’s list to the top -- very important with Word in the Microsoft Office folder, for example, which deserves to be near the top of the folder, instead of squirreled away at the bottom. In Start10, you can’t reorder items by drag and drop.
In many other respects, the two programs are quite similar. Searching for items in the Start10 “Search programs and files” box bypasses Cortana. Universal apps are a short click away in Start10, as is the traditional Windows 10 Start menu.
Where to Start
For experienced Windows 7 users who aren’t overly impressed with flittering tiles, both Start10 and Classic Shell offer a great deal of improvement and comfort. Both offer a Start experience that’s fairly similar to Windows 7, though both have shortcomings. Universal/tiled apps are always at hand, and Cortana is cut out of the mix -- permanently in Classic Shell, optionally in Start10.
Start10 is clearly the more sophisticated Start substitute, with lots of settings and customizing capabilities. It’s sleek in the default configuration, expandable, and eminently usable. The $5 price tag will pay for itself in the first two minutes.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that the tinkerer in me prefers the full-on All Programs maneuverability built into Classic Shell. The ability to create my own folder hierarchies and easily move programs and folders among them, sorting in the way I prefer, puts Classic Shell ahead of Start10 in my book.
Give them both a try. Start10 has a 30-day free trial, if the $5 price tag presents a deterrent. Both uninstall very quickly and cleanly.
Or better -- why not buy Start10 and donate $5 to Classic Shell? We need more great add-on software, and both deserve our support.
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