I can’t say I fell in love with Windows 8.0. It is faster than Windows 7 to boot and feels generally a bit more responsive and ‘tight’. But the godawful Start screen method of launching applications was a real put-off: need to open a text editor so you can type some SQL to be pasted into a command window? Here… let me obliterate your screen with an intrusive chunk of purple sprayed with all manner of childishly-large and mostly irrelevant icons and see if you can hunt-and-peck for the application you want:
Of course, I was told I was doing it wrong: just tap the <Win> key and then start typing the name of your program. Windows search would find it and then you’d be able to launch it without hunting for anything… without touching your mouse at all! True, that: except that I might well not remember the name of the program I use to do stuff with. “VMware” I can manage; but having to type “calibre” instead of “ebook” for my e- book reader? Not so hot.
Happily, there were ways out of this impasse: Classic Shell gave me back a usable Start menu, so that it was possible to spend about 99.8% of my time without ever having to invoke the Start Screen at all.
But, you know… Microsoft had a point: poking your way through a large menu of program shortcuts can be a bit of a pain at times. So, I’ve gotten into the habit of pinning commonly-used programs onto the Taskbar (as I expect a lot of us have) and also to using the free Fences program to enable me to have a lot more launch icons on my desktop in manageable groups. In just a couple of hours of fiddling around, I’d end up with a Windows desktop looking something like this:
Granted, you might not like my choice of wallpaper… but at least my programs are readily-accessible and their shortcuts organized in a vaguely meaningful way.
However, there are a couple of things wrong with this. First, the free Fences program is no longer current. The developer, StarDock, now produces Fences 2.0, which isn’t free at all (though there’s a trial version). So hooking myself up to an end-of-life program (which I know already, in fact, doesn’t run well in Windows 8.1) isn’t the smartest move I ever made. Secondly, whilst Classic Shell is free and under active development, should I really trust a third-party developer to replace such core, low-level O/S functionality? For about a year, the answer to that has been a definite ‘yes’, but it’s niggled me a bit at the same time.
But you know what the biggest problem with that last screenshot is? (Apart from my choice of wallpaper, I mean!) It’s the fact that I have very carefully and very deliberately sprayed a bunch of icons all over my full-screen desktop and then organized them into groups. And isn’t that -at least in part- pretty much precisely what the Start Screen does in the first place? And if that’s even partially true, haven’t I just spent quite a lot of time in going out of my way to re-invent exactly what Microsoft already provides?
Well, not quite. Compare my two screenshots above, for example, and you’ll see that the Start Screen is bright purple and that the icons aren’t particularly well grouped or organized. It’s therefore intrusive and difficult to use (for me, I hasten to add). But if you could (a) get the purple to change to something that looked more like my desktop wallpaper; and (b) come up with a way of easily organizing those icons into the same sort of groups as I used Fences to create… well, then wouldn’t I have the desktop and program launcher I currently use, but without the reliance on third party software?
The penny dropped for me this week, in fact, that that’s indeed the case. And the Windows 8.1 RTM version that was finally released on Technet a few days ago provides exactly those two features I needed: you can now set your Start Screen background to be whatever your Desktop is displaying and you can right-click anywhere on the Start Screen, click the Customize button and move your launcher icons around into meaningful groups.
So here’s my actual (i.e., physical) Windows 8.1 desktop:
…and I have to say that it’s already a lot cleaner than before. But (the real test!), how’s my Start Screen look? Like this:
Sharing the same background as my desktop and organized. I’ll even argue that the ‘childish-looking’ icons are rather easier to see, read and use than the traditional icons shown in the second screenshot of this article earlier.
Is it perfect? No, definitely not. For a start, it’s harder to organize those icons than it ought to be, even with the new right-click/Customize option. Second, I could wish for ‘horizontal organization’ of the icons: there are five vertically-defined icon groups in that last screenshot -but the ‘Games’ one only has two icons. Couldn’t I move it to sit underneath the ‘Internet’ group? Not allowed, unfortunately, so things end up being a little less compact than I’d like.
Also, Microsoft brings up the Start Screen with a subtle animation that, despite its subtlety, annoyed me: pressing the <Win> key (or clicking the newly-restored Start button), it felt like something was being drawn over the top of the desktop, rather than it just being an invocation of a full-screen application launcher. Happily, that one is fixable: Control Panel → System and Security → System → Advanced System Settings → Advanced → Performance Settings and disable the option Animate controls and elements inside windows. Now invoking the Start Screen makes it appear instantly, as I think it should.
So, I guess my point is that when I read about Windows 8.1, the big story was ‘the return of the Start Menu’. Or at least the return of the Start button. Fine: I find clicking it or pressing <Win> about equally productive, so it’s no big deal for me one way or another. But finally grasping how to organize the Start Screen in a way I’ve been doing on my desktop for years; and not having a lurid purple pop-up appear, but rather a continuation of my desktop wallpaper theme… well, that for me is the big story in Windows 8.1.
I’ve therefore finally ditched Classic Shell and Fences, and feel I’ve lost nothing of what I was functionally doing before. I am left with that tighter, sharper, faster O/S that version 8 always was when compared to Windows 7, and the Start Screen is no longer the bugbear it once was. Search is much improved (without the arbitrary classification into Apps, Settings and Files), and the ability to boot direct to the desktop is also welcome. I am still utterly underwhelmed by the new-fangled ‘Modern Apps’, and their design æsthetic seems to me just peculiar. I accordingly wish there was a one-click way of associating file types with their old-fashioned desktop programs so that I’d never have to meet a Metro App in the flesh again. But there isn’t, so it’s a question of making your file/program associations one by one as they arise. Annoying, but not a show-stopper.
Anyway, I think this week I finally ‘got’ what Windows 8.x was all about, and 8.1 makes it a lot easier to use. I would certainly recommend it as a client desktop O/S, anyway.