By far, Windows 8’s new Start screen is its most strikingly different feature as compared to Windows 7 and prior versions.
Unfortunately, that new tiled Start screen leaves many with a very negative first impression of Windows 8 – a first impression that then goes on to color their entire Windows 8 experience.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Classic Shell is a free set of software that gives you your favorite Start menu back, as well as restoring and adding functionality to both Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer.
It’s a great way to make Windows 8 more useful to those who dislike what I’ve come to refer to as the “tablet-ification” of the user interface.
Start is Start is…
This is what most people react to:
What most people don’t realize is that this is the Windows 8 Start menu. No, it doesn’t look like a menu, and yes, it takes up the entire screen, but functionally, it’s very close to doing all the same things that the more traditional Start menus did.
It’s very functional, works well with a mouse1, and is very customizable. If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a tile for “Ask Leo!” that your installation probably doesn’t have – naturally, you can customize exactly what you want to see there. That’s not to say it’s identical in function to the old Start menu – I couldn’t, for example, quickly figure out how to change the icon for my shortcut – but realizing that it is a fully customizable Start menu may be enough to help many people adjust.
Here’s the other thing people react to:
The reaction to this, the Windows 8 desktop, is typically: “Where’s the Start button?!” and “How do I do anything?!”
This is what people are looking for:
And that is just one thing that Classic Shell provides.
Installing Classic Shell
Classic Shell is free and open source software. Simply download it from the Classic Shell website and install it.
After agreeing to a license, there’s one option selection that’s worth understanding:
Classic Shell actually includes three separate components:
- Classic Explorer Adds a toolbar and a status bar to Windows Explorer (now referred to as the File Explorer in Windows 8).
- Classic Start Menu Adds a Start button and a very customizable, more traditional Start menu.
- Classic IE9 Adds a caption bar and status bar for Internet Explorer.
Each of these can be selected or not at installation time. The default is to install all and so far, I’ve seen no harm in doing exactly that.
That being said, I’ll be focusing on the Start menu for the rest of this article.
As the example above showed, after installing Windows Classic Shell (and making a choice or two, which I’ll cover in a moment), Windows 8 now has a Windows 7 style Start menu:
But, in fact, if you didn’t like Windows 7’s approach to Start menus and perhaps preferred Windows XP, we can do that too:
We can go back even further with the so-called “Windows Classic” menu style:
Which of these three styles you want is a choice that you’re requested to make the first time you click on the Start button:
Using Classic Start
The Classic Start menu has been integrated into Windows 8 very well. It feels very natural and familiar in almost every circumstance.
Of particular note, however, is that Classic Start hasn’t removed anything. In fact, if you want to re-visit your tiled Start menu, by default you can just hold down Shift as you click on the Start button. Want to return to your desktop with Classic Shell? Just hold down the CTRL key and press ESC, or press the Windows key on your keyboard.
Pretty much what you might expect.
And, of course, if you decide that you’d rather not use Classic Shell and want to run with the new, native Windows 8 interface, you can simply uninstall it as well.
Options, we have Options!
To be honest I’ve really only scratched the surface on Classic Start’s capabilities. If you notice in the Options box displayed above, there’s a little selection for “Basic Settings” versus “All Settings”. Click on All and you’ll see no less than 13 tabs of available options to customize Classic Start. (You can get at the Options dialog by right-clicking on the Start button and choosing “Settings”.)
The options available allow you to customize just about every aspect of the Start menu, including most all options that the older versions of Windows allowed you to customize and many more.
You can even control whether or not the Windows 8 “hot corners” should be disabled. (By default, only the lower left or Start menu hot corner is disabled.)
And, yes, after rebooting, you’ll bypass the tiled Start menu and go directly to your desktop.
It’s not just for Windows 8
While Classic Shell is likely experiencing a surge in popularity with the release of Windows 8, it’ll actually work in Windows Vista and Windows 7, in both 32 and 64-bit versions2 (the same installer works for all). In fact, its origins come from issues that the original developers had with functionality that had changed in those operating systems. It simply became a very fortunate and powerful alternative for folks now struggling with Windows 8.
If you’re struggling with Windows 8, I strongly recommend you give Classic Shell a try before you give up. It might well change your mind and allow you to avoid the time and possible expense of a system reinstall.
In fact, I recommend it.