Archive for October, 2012

Metro: Windows 8’s Improved Start Menu

October 29, 2012 Comments off

I’ve heard a lot of complaining lately about Windows 8’s Metro interface. Windows 8 is seen as a smartphone OS trying to be a computer OS and not pulling it off, not designed for the mouse and keyboard, and shoving the desktop into the background. I don’t see it.

Full disclosure: I’ve been playing with Windows 8 for a couple of months now, after setting up the Release Preview on a spare Windows XP computer at the office so we can get to know the Windows 8 before we have to support customers using it. It’s a modest desktop PC with a decidedly non-touch-capable CRT monitor and a spare mouse and keyboard we dug out of a pile. That’s pretty much all the hands-on experience I have with the operating system.

As far as I can see, Metro is simply a combination of two things. First, it’s the home for the new full-screen apps that are designed to work across Windows 8 devices (that is, PCs and tablets). I’ll admit that the mouse and keyboard complaints apply pretty well to some of these apps, but whether that’s the fault of the app designers or Metro itself is not something I’m going to worry about in this post.

Second, Metro is the latest version of the Start menu.

Screenshot of Windows 8 Start Screen

The Metro Start screen is the first thing you see when you log on (hence “Start”—the name finally makes sense). Its grid of tiles functions basically like the list of recent programs that’s been in the Start menu ever since Windows XP, except that it’s more customizable. As in previous versions of Windows, you can right-click a program (be it a desktop program or a Metro app) and “pin” it to the Start Menu. You can drag tiles to rearrange them, and drag them to new columns to take up as much space as you need. But you probably already know all that from the press releases.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Live Tiles”: When certain Metro apps are pinned to the Start screen, their tiles automatically update with information related to the App.  Again, I won’t go into detail since you’ve probably already heard all this by now. Note that Windows lets you switch this on and off per-app from the right-click menu.

Another mainstay of the Start menu to get an improvement is the All Programs menu (just “Programs” in XP’s Classic Start menu and in earlier versions). The new version has its pros and cons compared to the old version, but I like it.

Compare the Windows 7 (left) and 8 (right) versions:

Screenshot of Windows 7 Start Menu with All Programs menu open Screenshot of Windows 8 Apps menu

Which of these would you rather use? My vote goes to the Windows 8 version. Everything being laid out where it’s easy to see makes it much more pleasant to use, in contrast to the earlier version that crams everything into a tiny, scrolling box. It’s not perfect, though. It’s not as easy to access, and lacks the ability to collapse the groups of icons or hide seldom-used items.

To be honest, though, I have barely used the All Programs menu in Windows 7 at all lately, because the search box in the Start menu is so much more convenient most of the time. You just have to open the Start menu and start typing. What’s not immediately obvious is that Windows 8 maintains this feature. The search box isn’t actually displayed at first (you can summon it by selecting Search from the Charms menu), but all you have to do is start typing and Windows 8 will automatically switch to the Search screen.

Screenshot of Windows 8 Search screen displaying results for "fire"

As much as I like the new Start screen, I have to admit it’s far from perfect. At the risk of repeating myself, some things are not easy to find; I expect many people won’t ever know some features exist unless someone tells them. As I mentioned before, the search box doesn’t appear until you start typing or expressly select it from the Charms menu, and you have to go through that Search screen or the Start screen’s right-click menu to get to the Apps menu. I also miss the recent/pinned items from 7, the old Recent Items list that’s been around forever, and the quick access to Computer, Documents, etc. and items like Run, Control Panel, and Shut Down. There are some other inconveniences as well, such as a different Settings menu depending on whether you open it from the Start screen or the Desktop.

Even so, I do like the Start screen overall. More importantly, my experience has been that Metro isn’t a ground-up reimagining of all of Windows. It’s just a set of tablet-style apps and a new Start menu. If you’re worried about a smartphone OS taking over your business computers, just take a deep breath, hit Windows+D, and go on with your life.