READ BEFORE POSTING:
Before I begin, I wanted to layout the purpose of this thread. It is meant as one user’s (mine) in depth analysis of the current implementation of the Windows Start Menu as seen in Windows 7 vs. the current implementation of the Windows Start Screen (dashboard) as seen in the Windows 8 Release Preview (Build 8400), and why I feel the changes Microsoft is making are justified. Also, this isn't about Metro/RT apps, this is just to focus soley on the Start Menu/Start Screen.
This is not a hate thread against Windows, the developers of Windows, or any one poster here on Neowin, and by no means shall it
. I wish that this thread to remain on topic, and civil at all times, and I encourage others to post an analysis if they choose to do so themselves to cover more angles and form more opinions. Please no “tl;dr” crapola, or outright “Metro/Windows 8 sux. Lolz.” replies. I took the time to really dig into the menu to see what’s there, and wish that my time be respected.
With so many fighting nail and tooth to save the Start Menu, I wanted to dive in to see what exactly users are fighting to save and compare that to the changes in the new Start Screen.
Mods, I hope this is ok. I deliberated for the better part of a day if I should past this or not, If you feel this should be included in another thread, please feel free to move it.
The Start Menu was introduced all the way back in Windows 95 (“Chicago”), nearly 17 years ago. Back then, things were different. When you bought a PC, it was more than likely a desktop model, complete with a clunker of a monitor, mouse and keyboard. However, if you were lucky enough to afford a laptop, it too, was huge and clunky. You didn’t move much with it, it was heavy, awkward to use, and 802.11 WiFi was just a gleam in someone’s eye, so it too, most likely spent much time sitting on a desk.
Also, back then the Internet was a different place. Home users spent no more than one or two hours at most connected, before disconnecting and enjoying the rest of their day. There was no Twitter, Facebook, or Google for that matter, and to connect, you had to dial in over a 56k modem (fun stuff). Windows 95, just like its predecessor, Windows 3.1, was also mouse intensive. There were very few keyboard shortcuts and the Start Button on the keyboard didn’t exist yet. Back then, there were no touch screens, Kinects, remotes, voice control, controllers, nothing. The mouse was the only game in town, and even by then it took years to catch on. Since this was also the rise of the home computer, Microsoft needed a way for users to easily find what they are looking for, thus the Start Menu was born. Flash forward to Windows 98, 2000, and the Start Menu carried on strong, basically unchanged until XP, however even though XP introduced the “enhanced” Menu, it still has the same layout it had all those years ago, but by this point, I feel it’s become a mess of epic proportions. It’s that building downtown, which despite repairs, has still managed to decay. Let’s take a look:
This is the Start Menu as we know it today in Windows 7:
On one side, you have either your most recently or commonly used apps, or your static, pinned apps, and the toggle to trigger your “All Programs” view. On the other, you have a slim selection of system locations and services to choose from, and on the bottom, your machine’s power options. The “All Programs” list is a carry-over from the original Start Menu in Windows 95, while the ability to pin apps is not. Pinning has made selecting my most used apps hassle free, but what happens when I need to access that one oddity that I don’t have pinned? Sure I could search for it, but some of you here have claimed it takes “too much effort” to search for it, or you don’t know the name of it to begin with. That means you’re left to browse for it. It’s not a common occurrence anymore, but it does happen.
However, “All Programs” hasn’t really received any TLC since the 90’s. Upon further inspection, it appears to be a mismatched conglomeration of folders, apps, and system widgets that God only knows go where. This isn’t something your ordinary user needs or really should have to dig through to get to where they want to be.
Some apps don’t have folders, while some do. Some are hidden away in sub-folders of sub-folders, made worse by names that can be intimidating or scary sounding for ordinary users - “Accessories”, “System Tools”, etc. Also, since Windows Vista, sub folders no longer fly out over the desktop; users are now literally confined to the tiny space in the corner of their screen for search through the menu, which can lead to problems of its own:
As you can see, the more you dig into the menu, the more space you run out of, something that could be addressed with fixes, but at the same time, do you really want to go back to those awkward flyouts like Windows 95-2000 had? I don’t. It increases mouse travel time, and certainly isn’t touch friendly at all. So what do you do? Do you get rid of it all? I don’t really think this would work as a Start Menu:
Users would never be able to find anything, and power users would be left in the dirt too, unable to be very productive with just a search bar and power options. So, it’s pretty obvious at this point that the Start Menu has many, many fallacies with just the All Programs menu alone, with little viable solutions without a complete overhaul. Microsoft could have cleaned up the All Programs menu, reorganized everything into better hierarchies, but that too would have forced change, and forced users to relearn where everything is, and those little 16x16 icons still aren’t touch friendly. Microsoft could have also increased the resolution of those icons, but that then puts strain on the limited horizontal space the Start Menu is forced to exist by. They could try to extend the Start Menu out horizontally, but according to complaints, this covers more screen space, and could potentially create awkward situations when dealing with subfolders, again due to space limitations.
So, it appears that in order to “refresh” the Start Menu idea, a series of sacrifices have to be made. But one thing is certain; the menu as we know it today isn’t a viable long term solution anymore. New advances in hardware and the overall way we interact with machines are forcing some changes here. While app pinning in the Start Menu in Windows 7 is a great idea, and one that I could not be without today, it too is limited in how many apps can be pinned, and is also limited by what kind of apps can be pinned. In Windows 7, only individual apps can be pinned, Control Panel widgets and folders are not allowed. However, they are able to be pinned to the taskbar under the Explorer icon or Control Panel icon.
Another limitation to pinned apps is the icons’ size. In order to pin as many apps as a user desires, the icon size is limited to either 32x32 or 16x16. While the 32x32 size may be touch friendly, 16x16 is not, and 32x32 is too small of an icon to display any sort of live information. How exactly does a designer deal with these issues? For those arguing that the Start Menu isn’t broken, it is for these reasons, which I respectfully disagree. It’s a good idea, left to decay with each release.
The only thing I can see about the Start Menu that's worth saving is, the pinning abilities, which thankfully, Microsoft carried over to the Start Screen, but on Windows 7, the menu is limited by your screen's size. I can fit 23 apps in my Start Menu on my 22 inch screen. My laptop is even less with 12 apps, my netbook? I can fit 6 apps. The rest have to either reamin buried in the "All Programs" menu, or live on the taskbar (I don't do desktop shortcuts anymore).
Reflecting from my first paragraph, today’s world is different from the world of 1995. We have always on Internet, mobile computing is a booming market, the mouse is no longer the only I/O game in town, and everyday seems to bring about a new change that makes the current iteration of Windows seem outdated and archaic.
A few years from now, chances are my desktop or laptop will be augmented with both touch and motion sensing input. I know many here don’t want that, and will most likely stick to using older systems and monitors to avoid the touch world, but it appears that’s where the market wants to go, and with Windows 8, it seems Microsoft is leading that charge. The outcomes of that I can think of are touch wins and the market and developers accept that, pretty much forcing everyone else along for the ride, or touch fails, however, if touch does fail, I don’t see things returning to the way they are now in Windows 7. Chances are some new form of computing will rise in its place, forcing yet another change in Windows.
I still believe that Microsoft is right in fitting Windows to touch devices, the market has shown that too many versions of Windows leads to confusion (Windows 8 Touch Home Premium Metro Ultimate Edition, anyone?). As a Windows user, I want Windows to be simply Windows. It simplifies things by not dividing the market (Windows, Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 Touch, Windows 8 Non Touch, Windows RT, etc. Which one do I develop for? Which one will get me the most users of my app? Which one has the most long term viability? Yikes, too much going on here!), and it allows Microsoft to concentrate on one platform for multiple devices. Two if you count Windows Phone. They don’t need to worry about multiple editions of Windows anymore, and neither does the consumer (well, unless you count WinRT).
Since Windows now has to play nice with a wide range of devices and input methods, Microsoft had to develop an easy to use, and device neutral way of interacting with the computer. Thus, the Start Screen was born. Many people think of this has a touch only design because of the large tiles, however, they ignore the fact that just because the on-screen elements are bigger, they are by no means touch only.
We all know what the new Start Screen looks like. After a bit of tinkering, we have a clean easy to use and understand layout that can accompany anything and everything you wish. You can pin as much or as little as you want, no longer limited by screen space, if you pin more than can fit on screen at once, the Screen slides off to the left or right. Also new here, are live tiles; these automatically update to present you with the information that matters to you. News, weather, calendar, mail, social updates, and app updates. You name it, it’s there. As you can see, I am now no longer limited by what I can pin. I can pin apps, folders, Control Panel widgets, and Metro focused apps. Better yet, I can organize them any way I wish. I am no longer limited to what I can do. With that said, is it perfect? By all means no, but it does address the limitations of the old Start Menu as described above. Because of this, I feel the new Start Screen is working with you, rather than against you, no matter which device you are using.
The first common complaint is that it takes up the whole screen. While this is true, this is one of those “rock and a hard place” moments for the designers and users alike. While the Start Menu enabled users to use the menu and keep an eye on things going on at the same time, the Start Menu suffers usability issues because of its limited space. There are a few ways around this, though. First is to pin most commonly used apps to the taskbar. Second is the one I find the best, with using a second (or third) monitor. It allows you to invoke the Start Screen on one, while keeping that special app(s) open on the second.
While this isn’t a perfect solution (especially on laptops) it is a work around that directly addresses this complaint and the limited space seen in the Start Menu. I feel it’s making direct use of the screen real estate available to the select user. Better yet, the Start Screen can be invoked on either monitor, depending which side my work is on.
To address the “All Programs” issues in the current Windows 7 Start Menu, in Windows 8, Microsoft redesigned the layout of the now “All Apps” menu. On the left side, you have a list of Metro and pinned apps, while on the right side, you have a cleaner list of all installed apps, however there are a few curious omissions.
Gone are the miscellaneous folders, the conglomeration of “homeless” apps, and scary sounding folders and sub folders. We’re left with a clean, easy to use list of the installed apps we have on our machines. On the left, we have a list of Metro and pinned apps, and on the right we have a clean list of the rest of our apps we either haven’t pinned, or used. This menu can easily be accessed by pressing Win+Q or by clicking on the Search Charm. A third way is to right click directly on the Start Screen.
However, there are many notable apps missing in this list. Backup and restore is one I feel should be listed here, instead of buried in the Control Panel. Also, Microsoft has moved the shortcuts found on the right side of the current Menu into the Settings Charm which can be accessed at any time by either pressing Win+I or by mousing over to the top right of your screen.
Here you can find easy access to the Control Panel, Personalization features, PC info, and Help, along with the power options, volume control, and Network access.
This change has led to a lot of anger and confusion, but I feel this divorce of options makes the UI cleaner, and more organized, than shoving everything into the Start Menu.
The few downsides to this right now, are that it leaves a lot of “white space”, and no customization features. The Charms are purely fixed.
Is the new Start Screen perfect? By all means no. I think there needs to be a visual cue somewhere to let the user know it’s OK to type to search, and I think that splitting up the search into three separate categories is a bit odd. I really wish it was possible to automatically go to the category where the thing you are searching for is found, but I have to manually select it for some reason. And as I said before, some of the power features of Windows are curiously absent from the “All Apps” list.
Also, I think the Start Menu could have greater customization features, like the ability to use a background image instead of awkward colors and patterns.
But it does address the many problems with today’s Start Menu. Again, to those who say it’s “not broken”, I disagree. Once you dive into the guts of the thing, its problems and limitations become apparent, and many of these are fixed with the new Start Screen. Also, the Start Screen eliminates device “bias” by being able to play equally with all devices, and input methods. This is something the Start Menu would never be able to do.
After using both the Start Menu and Start Screen on both touch and non-touch devices, it’s apparent that the Start Screen is a needed change if Microsoft wishes to make Windows to work across a wide range of devices. Continuing to use the decrepit Start Menu/desktop only paradigm would have been akin to shooting yourself in the foot.
I’m positive we’ll see a lot more changes and fixes for Metro in Windows 9, but for now, I’m happy to see Microsoft finally coming to terms with Windows, and its lack of long term viability, because I for one would like to see it survive, and would like to continue using it in the future.
What do you think? Was I able to cover all bases? Or did I miss something? Like I said, I put a good day and a half into putting this together and really running through the Start Menu, so let's be respectful here.