5 Ways Microsoft Can Improve the Windows 8 Start Screen

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After having used Windows 8 over the past few months, we’ve found a few ways Microsoft could immediately improve the Start Screen to make it less disorienting and more usable, not only for tablets but desktops and laptops as well.

It’s safe to say that the one thing Windows 8 doesn’t lack is criticism. Since the Consumer Preview debuted in February, it has proven to be one of the most polarizing Windows releases ever. But regardless of whether you love or hate it, Windows 8 is where Microsoft’s venerable operating system is headed. Portable computing is here to stay and if the company is to survive, let alone remain relevant, it has to change, adapt, embrace, and extend.

Perhaps the single most universally controversial change to Windows is Microsoft’s decision to remove the Start button (or orb, if you’ve moved beyond XP) and with it, what we know to be the Start Menu. In their place we now have a Start hot corner (a workable alternative) and the newly redesigned Metro Start Screen. The Start Screen is, if nothing else, different. Beyond a doubt, there has not been such a radical redesign of Windows’ Start functionality since it went to a two-column design with a nested “All Programs” menu in Windows XP.

The Start Screen can be a little jarring because it requires users to not only relearn what they’ve known for nearly two decades but to also rethink the way they interact with Windows. However, the Start Screen maintains its core elements: a Start “menu”, a place for all installed programs (All apps), and a search pane. The Start Screen is attractive, clean, bold, and very imperfect. Here are five changes we’d like to see in the Start Screen before Windows 8 goes gold …

Make the All Apps Button Permanent

In its current form, when you open the Start Screen, you are presented with a selection of apps that have been pinned to it. There are many more apps than appear on the Start Screen but in order to see them, you first have to right click and move the pointer to the resulting “All apps” button in the bottom right corner.

There’s little sense in this. Unless you’re planning on pinning every last app and program to Start, you’re likely to use “All apps” on a regular basis. After all, this is where you will find the calculator and paint shortcuts. And perhaps you don’t want every single app on the Start Screen but you still want them on your system.

“All apps” is the Windows 8 equivalent of Windows 7’s “All Programs” menu so it begs the question, why accomplish in two steps what you can easily do in one? Microsoft should just make all apps a permanent fixture on the Start Screen.

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Put in the Context

We understand why there are no Windows-esque context menus on the Start Screen. Traditional drop down lists are hard to negotiate with a touch interface. It’s much easier to have large icons pop up that can be easily tapped with sausage-sized human digits. But, it just seems counterintuitive not to have some kind of context menu solution.

If Microsoft is really bent on making things big enough to tap, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that they can make a context menu that is accommodating to touch interfaces and mouse pointers. Instead of making us choose from a context bar at the bottom of the screen, have applicable options pop out wherever the pointer is, just like it does on the desktop. Use icons and text large enough to tap while retaining Metro UI elements and themes. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, just make it better.

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Shut Down? Good Luck

Shutting down, restarting or putting your system to sleep isn’t difficult but it’s tedious and annoying. The way to accomplish this in Windows 8 is to mouse to the top or bottom right corner, open the charms bar, select Settings, then Power, then your option. Five steps to do what took two or three in previous Windows versions.

Instead of making us jump through these hoops, put the power options next to the user profile picture or, if Microsoft doesn’t want to clutter up the Start Screen with another button, put it on the profile picture context menu. Right now when users click on their profile picture, they get the options to change their account picture, lock the device, or sign out of their account. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to add sleep, restart, and shut down options.

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Default to the Desktop

Another big complaint found in Windows 8 is that the Start Screen opens by default when the system starts. There’s no way every desktop and laptop user is going to want to boot into Metro each and every time their computer starts. While Metro may work well for tablet users as the go-to default interface, it’s really nothing more than a glorified app launcher and as such, interferes with Desktop-oriented productivity.

One solution would be to have Windows’ setup ask a user what interface they want it to default to when the computer starts. The user could always change their preference in the settings later on. At the very least, Microsoft could give everyone the option. They don’t even have to make it easy, they can bury it in the Control Panel, just don’t make us start hacking the registry or install add-ons.

Click, Click, Click … Click, Delete?

One of the great things about the Start Menu when it matured was the ability to move, organize and best of all delete shortcuts directly from the Start Menu. That feature when incorporated was, is, awesome. You have to have used early Windows versions to understand just how much so.

Now, that ability is once again gone. Instead of being able to easily right-click/delete a shortcut, there are several steps you need to take: click “All apps” then right-click on the shortcut, mouse to the menu bar at the bottom and select “Open file location”. Windows Explorer will open to where the shortcut is located and you can then delete the shortcut.

So, why the rigmarole? True it’s not overly inconvenient to delete one of two shortcuts but if you have many shortcuts you want to delete, you have to keep opening the Start Screen, clicking on “All apps”, right-select the shortcut, open the file’s location, delete, and repeat as necessary. Why’s it so hard to allow users to press the delete button and/or add an option?

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Step One: Fix. Step Two: it. Step Three: Fix it!

There’s no doubt the Start Screen is progressive, attractive, and actually makes sense for Microsoft if they want to bridge Windows across tablets and desktops. But, as we’ve discussed, it could still use some work. While we think these five fixes would greatly improve the Start Screen, you might have even more ideas. Sound off in the comments and let us know what you would do to improve the Start Screen.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

  • Published 06/25/12
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