How-To Geek

5 Ways Microsoft Can Improve the Windows 8 Start Screen


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.


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.


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.


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?


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

Comments (31)

  1. jimmy

    This isn’t about the Start menu, but one feature I would like Win8 to have is a ‘soft’ reboot that restarts essensial Windows components without actually rebooting. Example, when you install a software package and it asks you to reboot. It requires a reboot so that it can delete/replace old files that are currently in use, and to start servers and serices. All that is really required is a ‘Windows reboot’, not a full system reboot.

  2. What?

    Many complains about start screen, seriously, how much time do you spend on the classic Start menu, personally I hated the old one, specially when I got a lot of programs installed, searching with my mouse, and sometimes missing a click on an item due to its small size, and having to start again. With this new one is easier, those ones that I do use often I arrange them to be the first ones to look at, simple and faster even typing its name.

    Come on, you don’t live in the old start menu, it sounds like you are using start menu all the time closing and opening your software each second.

  3. softail

    One thing I thought you might suggest is to have an option for smaller icons, as shown in the WP8 demo last week. This would allow for more icons on the start screen, and might be useful when working with a mouse.

    The other thing I would like is to be able to individually zoom in and out of groups. So I could have my main apps group shown zoomed in, and my rarely-used groups shown zoomed out, at the same time. Then I could get everything on one screen without having to scroll.

    Re “Click, Click, Click … Click, Delete?”
    Your description confused me. You are talking about removing icons from All Apps.

    Deleting tiles from the start screen is easy. You just swipe down on the tile to select it, the context menu bar automatically appears, and you have an option to unpin from the start. You can select several tiles at once, and unpin them all in one go. But you are right – All Apps should work the same way.

    I’ve used Win8 since the Developer Preview, and never used All Apps. I use Search a lot, and the desktop task bar.

  4. Dick

    Since many users will be converting a computer from a previous operating system, and few will have any apps bought from the app store, the current options available to fix problems are dismal. It’s like, do you want us to try to fix the problem, but we warn you we’re going to create a much bigger one because you are going to lose everything you already have. Aaaarrgghhh – no wonder people hate Microsoft!

  5. Fred

    Good article, good criticisms. I can also understand Microsoft’s need to compete in the mobile market, but it seems they’ve forgotten the desktop and server users. I support tens of thousands of Microsoft servers, and there is no way Metro will be beneficial to me. If anything, it will be an enormous hindrance. Unless you’re a one- or two-server shop, you don’t stand in front of the server console anymore; everything is done remotely. On slower connections, keyboard shortcuts are your friend. As of yet, I’ve seen nothing that will benefit the huge base of server administrators out there.

  6. Raging God

    shutting down and default to desktop are the good ones.

    The other problems are not the problems that I’m facing with windows 8.

  7. Ubique

    Although I use Windows 7 Professional I still use the Classic interface from XP and earlier and have a Start Button not an Orb. Microsoft’s attitude appears to be somewhat like Henry Ford’s: you can have any colour you like as long as it is black; rather than giving the consumer a choice. Being able to select/choose to use the Classic interface would cost Microsoft nothing except its hubris.

    As it currently stands I will stick with Windows 7 until I am given the choice I want and need for the way I work – probably in Windows 9 if Microsoft’s track record of failed OS’s (Millennium etc.) is anything to go by!

  8. williamknight57

    I think the best correction would be to shelve the whole windows 8 concept, to adapt my business computers to this disaster would be a collosal waste of time and money

  9. kalmly

    I don’t give a mouse fart about the Start menu. There’s a bucketful of other reasons to hate Windows 8. Who wants what is basically a mobile OS on their desktop? Especially an UGLY mobile OS. MS should apologize or admit Win8 is a joke. Haha, folks. Just pullin’ your legs. Windows 8 is for mobile devices. For you desktop users, you idiots who still do something called work with your computers, we have – ta-da – Windows 7 Plus, an improved Win7 that holds its settings, allows you to delete the Library, and offers you hours and hours of customization fun. For laptop owners we are allowing you choices – yes Microsoft, “choices”, remember those? – Windows 7 Plus with all the screen smudging benefits of Win8, a customizable desktop and the ability to enter the world of Metro (ugh) with a mere flip of the finger.

  10. Rusty Gates

    Good list.
    Like @softail, I hope that icons can be made smaller.
    I don’t need text if I know the word icon.

  11. Joe

    I have tried the preview of Windows 8. I after a few hours of using it I decided to rename it. I now call it Windows Ain’t. Without the familiar Start Bar I think it is pathetic. They should have two versions. One for tablets and one for the Desktop users. I think this is going to be a dud.

  12. Marlena

    Artistically and aesthetically the Metro interface is a hideous ugly design. I agree with Joe, without a way to switch to the desktop as default start its going to be Windows ME Second Edition. Alienating all the desktop and laptop users in the world is not a good business decision. Windows 7 pro x64 works just fine for me. I have 2 desktops and a lap top all running Win7, I have a Nook color. while it can do allkinds of tablet things, I use it to read books. None of my computers have a touch screen, so Win 8’s touch screen focus is totally meaningless to me.

  13. Paul

    1. Project onto an external TV/monitor using winkey+p
    2. To unlock the lock screen, double tap on your mouse or hit any key on the keyboard instead of dragging to the top
    3. In any app, right click to bring up the “app bar” to see everything you can do
    4. To go back to the Start screen, simply use the Windows Key on your keyboard
    5. Bump your mouse against the left side of the screen to see a thumbnail of your most recently used app. Use the scroll wheel to see all open modern apps
    6. Modern apps don’t generally need to be closed — they are suspended when they’re not in view. If you really need to close them, use the task manager (via the tile or ctrl+shift+esc) to force quit
    7. To search for anything on your system like applications, setting, or files, simply start typing from the Start screen, and the search box will automatically pop up or use winkey+f
    8. Glance at your desktop by using Winkey+y
    9. To bring up the “charms bar” (share, settings, shutdown, etc), hit the lower-left corner of the screen with the mouse – no clicking required or use winkey+c
    10. Activate application settings charm by using winkey+i
    11. Use the page up and page down keys to move between tile groups on the Start Screen
    12. Bump your mouse to the left and grab an app, if you pull it towards the right and then bump it to the left it will cycle to the next app
    13. Activate Semantic Zoom in Metro apps by using Ctrl+ mouse scroll
    14. Switch the input language and keyboard layout with Winkey+Spacebar
    15. Show the desktop using Winkey+d
    16. Open the share charm with winkey+h
    17. Open the connect charm with winkey+k
    18. Lock your Windows 8 PC with winkey+l
    19. Lock screen rotation using winkey+o
    20. Cycle through apps using winkey+tab
    21. Switch between apps using alt+tab

  14. Mike

    If they try to force Metro on desktop users it will be an epic failure. The criticism that M$ got with Vista and M.E. will seem like the good ole days. If it aint broke – don’t fix it. Win7 was a good step forward, Win8 is possibly a step backwards.

  15. Joe

    Marlena, yes the Metro Interface is ugly.

    I got this link today from a Kim Komando’s email. It is a free option from Stardock software that will add the start back into Windows 8. I have not tried it yet so I don’t know how good it will work. Here is the link below.

  16. Citrus Rain

    Here’s my idea.

    Have a Windows 8 shell.
    Have a Windows 7 shell.

    Allow users to choose what shell they want to see when they log in.

  17. Gatis

    Here’s an idea. Opera -like shell with as customization friendly start menu and toolbar as possible. I want minimalism out the box.

  18. beergas

    Hell ya, do the suggested fix it work before final release. Got a headache just reading all that senseless navigation. No wonder there will be all kinds of third party ‘fixes’ coming.
    Is this a political scheme to ‘make work’? Can’t it all just get along. Thanks for the article.

  19. Lonney

    The best solution is to stop wasting time and stick with Windows 7 =)

  20. pbug56

    I agree with Lonney. Except that I like what is underneath the skin on 8. So how about instead of Windoze 8 MUTRO we get a new Win 7 SP with the underlying fixes, the new explorer, etc. but keep the current gui? There is no need for Windoze 8 for PC’s at this point, and no one in their right minds will buy a Windoze phone. MAYBE someone will want the Windoze 8 MUTRO pad. Who knows. But even Apple haters aren’t likely to want a Microsloth pad. Maybe, if a good one comes along, an Android pad.

  21. r

    improve windows 8 ! hmmm?…no, it’s just not going to happen.

  22. Pradeep

    Hey Paul. these keyboard shortcuts you gave are awesome. thanks buddy. I think most of these cribbers would do well to use these shortcuts.

    Another thing, these same people don’t mind learning how to access hundreds of hidden settings when they buy a new phone (probable every year or so ), but for Windows 8 which has very few difference when compared… my my.. everyone has something to say about how annoyed they are or confused they are. Why guys ? did you learn everything about your new smartphone by just looking at it? or by happily clicking all the buttons and apps with a childish joy. I am saying childish joy because like a child we all are showoffs when we tell our friend what new our smartphone have or how great is IOS 4 or Palm OS or Android. No ?? Then why this attitude with Windows 8. MS is just giving you same joy on your desktop. And if you happen to choose Windows Mobiles then your learning curve is shortest, because you already are familiar with the OS. and NO compatibility issues.

    Come on guys. don’t crib about the changes..Most of these are cosmetics anyway. They are supposed to be easier to handle on touch screens which is the future MS believes. Crib you must if the OS is not performing. Work on it and please post if you have anything to say about the actual OS working, its compatibility, is security, application availability, etc. Look at Paul, he has posted so useful shortcuts.

    And remember your first smartphone. Were you happy exploring it and finding its capabilities or were you disgusted from the word go because you have to find hard way how to change something like time, date, colour, desktop picture etc….. Happy computing.

  23. Rookie of the Year

    Bake in four different interfaces accessible from the Themes settings. Call them turtle shells or something. And just because, make them all attractive using a visual artist’s point of view and let the programmers get back to what they’re good at.

    I nominate these four base themes, or shells, or whatever. Call them “Jefferson Starships” for all I care. (s06e19)

    The Sandbox: Color coded and big targets for mobile devices and people who only use their computers for limited activities. A set and forget system catering to computer illiterate grandmothers — I mean horny old grandfathers — HTPCs, and children.

    The Corp: No frills, no aero – just the services needed to get things done. Disgruntled employees can call it “the corpse”. Microsoft shouldn’t bite the richest hand that feeds them, right?

    The Aficionado: Everything with a side of kill switch. Who wants the print spooler, indexing, or MSE running when you’re benching the next Crysis? Customize to your heart’s content.

    The Cypher: How about some love for the lowly computer tech? An underlying shell on all systems where one goes to fix the dang thing. A live safe mode. Windows 8 gets the idea right by combining msconfig and taskmgr, but fails to make something universally viable for the future.

  24. spike

    In Windows Server 2012 “Windows Server 8 beta”, the GUI is optional; it can be removed like any other server role. Seems obvious that the same thing could be done with Windows 8, disable one GUI (tablet GUI), enable another (Desktop GUI). Or, make the Metro interface part of an expanded version of Windows 7’s “Tablet PC Components” so it can be disabled like it normally is on desktops and laptops.

    @Rookie of the Year: Good ideas, but I bet if Microsoft went this far, it would be marketed as “Windows 8 Ultimate Platinum” or something of the sort and cost twice what Ultimate does :)

  25. kenny

    this is the worse version of windows ever… i thought it was impossible to outdo winMe and winVista.. but microsoft has talent in destroying what worked and changing it to an obscure non user friendly and ugly interface made by monkeys

  26. Anonymous

    I think kalmly touched on a good point. Microsoft seems to want to shove a bunch of different junk into one operating system. They seem to be saying, “you can have certain options if you purchase our silver package, even more options if you purchase our gold package, but have all possible options if you purchase our platinum package – options that you’ll probably never even use! And don’t pay attention to the copper or zinc packages since those are for completely different customers.”

    Creating different prices for the exact same product just makes things even more frustrating (I’m talking about OEM versus Retail). And where Windows 8 is concerned, who knows if an OEM version will even be available since it now appears you’ll have to buy their top-of-the-line OS just to get the option to purchase certain apps like Media Center. (Ya! I’m pee’d off!)

    Microsoft makes it worse when they try to distinguish their different products with names like Ultimate, Home, Business, etc and not use names like, Tablet, Desktop, PDA or something like that. Microsoft doesn’t seem to fully realize the different systems that need an operating system. It’s a “one size fit’s all” policy on planet M$. It’s only after you buy their one product that you can semi-tailor it to fit your system. And no matter how you look at it, you’ll still have to purchase a ton of different options – and in a few cases, have them shoved down your throat (like IE) – just to get the one or two you want/need.

    Windows used to be a good product before Microsoft started cutting it up according to “features” (not needs). If you ask me, Windows 8 is poised to become such a dismal desktop failure that I predict it succeeding in sales beyond Microsoft’s wildest dreams. Just look at all the Apple devices and you might begin to see why I say that. In fact, it looks as though Microsoft is taking some very big queues from Apple too.

  27. Scotch Whisky

    I can categorically say that my company will not be moving to Windows 8. I have been using it along with a few other selected personnel for a few weeks and none of us can get used to it. It’s going to cost an absolute fortune to retrain everyone and for what benefit? Ninety five per cent of our staff will only ever use MS Office anyway.
    It seems to be that the most of the people that like Windows 8 are enthusiasts. Unfortunately most of my users are anything but!
    MS appear to want to deliberately alienate their business customers. Why we can’t opt for a “start menu” instead of “Metro” is beyond me. This would give all the Windows 8 benefits for desktop/laptop users and allow MS to break into the tablet market. That is if they are not already too late.


  28. Superevil

    When I see Windows 8 I think Windows ME 3.0. The only thing I like about Windows 8 is they finally added the RibbonUI to Explorer. I’d be happy if Microsoft just slapped the RibbonUI on Windows 7 and called it Windows 7 Sp2

  29. ling ho

    Wow this is an amazing software Windows 8 is fantastic.

    I haven’t been this excited about an operating system .

    the start screen has really grown on me. I have to admit that my initial reaction almost a year back was a bit “meh”

    but now can be wonderful and As much as I like it on the desktop, I can’t wait to use it on a tablet, as I know it’ll be even better there.

    so can everyone not hate this amazing software and work harder to understand and love a new things!

    no forget this time 1. mark as answer 2. thank for feedback 3.log uri

  30. Minotaur

    Well, I think its time for this young bull to pull a Vista adopter on Microsoft. Bye bye Windows hello OSX. The start screen makes sense, for a tablet but a friend once said, “If I wanted a glorified tablet sitting on my desk I would replace my iMac with an iPad” -DWG On full screen application launchers

  31. Nathan J.

    6. Add the Control Panel back in. Every time I need it, I forget how I got to it. I don’t mean the “PC Settings” from the Settings charm. I mean the straight up control panel.

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