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Did Microsoft get it wrong with the Start button in Windows 8.1? (opinion)

Did Microsoft get it wrong with the Start button in Windows 8.1?

What’s the biggest – or at least the most loudly voiced – complaint that’s made about Windows 8? My money is on it being the morphing of the Start menu into the Start screen. When Windows 8 was first released, users were up in arms at the loss of the Start button, but this was addressed with the 8.1 update. But really, it wasn’t the Start button that people were missing, it was the Start menu; and the Start screen is in no way a replacement, and certainly not an improvement.

On the whole I’m quite a fan of Windows 8. I’ll admit that it took me a while to get used to, but once I became familiar with its slightly different way of working, all was well with the world. Apart from the Start screen. This is without a doubt the biggest mistake Microsoft has made – and there are many reasons why.

“With the Start menu of old, it took two clicks to see a list of pretty much everything you have had installed.”

I’m pretty sure that Microsoft is feeling very pleased with itself having supposedly listened to its customers and given them what they asked for. But actually, I don’t think they have listened – or they’re guilty of selective hearing. Yes, people missed the Start button. It has been part of desktop furniture for nearly 20 years. It would be odd if there wasn’t some sort of reaction to its removal.

But what has been reinstated in Windows 8.1 is a pale imitation of the Start button that users actually yearn for – although the removal of the word ‘Start’ does at least address the absurdity of clicking Start to turn off a computer. The Start menu is, or was, at the very heart of Windows, and ripping it out left a hole.

The beauty of the Start menu was that it worked in much the same way as Explorer’s folder structure. You could see as much or as little detail as you wanted, and it was a simple job to drill down to what you were looking for. The Start screen has a flat structure which makes it slow, awkward and cumbersome to navigate.

With the Start menu of old, it took two clicks to see a list of pretty much everything you have had installed. Click the Start button, click All Programs and you have a neat list ready to make a selection from. It was all presented in a small, neat package as well. When activated, the Start menu left most of the desktop – or running applications – visible. Switching out Microsoft Word to launch another application needn’t interrupt your workflow too much because the document you were working on remained visible at all times.

Now a click of the Start button wrenches users away from the desktop and dumps them unceremoniously into the Modern UI – something else many Windows 8/8.1 users have an issue with. Despite the fact the Start screen occupies the entire screen, a tremendous amount of scrolling is needed to find what you’re looking for, particularly on smaller-screened laptops.

It is reminiscent of the menu found in Windows Phone which requires users to scroll through a lengthy list of find the shortcuts they need. One niggle has been ironed out however. For anyone who does not make use of Modern apps or Live tiles (a group I am very happy to include myself in) at least it is now possible to jump straight to the App section of the Start screen, but the alphabetized list of apps is nightmarishly daunting for anyone who has more than a few applications installed.

Sure, it’s possible to pin frequently used apps to the top of the Start screen – although this is little help if you have opted to jump into Apps view – or the Taskbar, but this just shifts the problem elsewhere. In a bid to avoid interacting with the Start screen, I have pinned a series of apps to the taskbar, but this is now starting to look cluttered as well.

“..the alphabetized list of apps is nightmarishly daunting for anyone who has more than a few applications installed.”

The Start screen is great if you have touch screen device. The large icons are finger friendly and scrolling through the oversized menu is less of an issue – but how many people are using Windows on a touchscreen device. We already know that Surface sales were “disappointing” and Surface 2 is yet to really take off.

Microsoft seems to have failed to grasp the idea that a very large proportion of Windows’ user base takes great issue with the very existence of the Modern side of Windows 8.1. It is easy enough to stick with using desktop app to avoid this most of the time, but hitting the Start button or Windows key throws up a horrible reminder of Windows’ darker side in your face.

I think what riles the most is the way in which the Start screen is billed as the new and improved Start menu. It is nothing of the sort. It slows down workflow, takes up too much space and does not allow for anywhere near the level of customization we’re used to. I can’t change the order in which shortcuts are displayed? Seriously?

It seems that the only concession to those who prefer the old way of doing things is the right click menu of the new Start button, but again this is an ugly menu devoid of customization options.

I’m not a Luddite; I appreciate change. I grew up on Windows 3.1 and the introduction of the Start button/menu in Windows 95 was a revelation. Windows 8 was a step in the wrong direction. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has an opportunity to put things right, but roundly refused to do so. Am I alone in my contempt for the Start screen? 

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