Classic Shell

Why Classic Start Menu?

After the Classic Shell project was released back in 2009, it quickly grew in popularity. Before long it was getting 5-10 thousand downloads per day. That's a sign that many people prefer the classic start menu over the Vista or Windows 7 menu. Why can't they accept the future? Why don't they stop whining and get with the program? Microsoft knows what's best for you, right?

Everybody has their reasons, all I can do here is to list my own. For me the new start menu (NSM) has several big deficiencies that make it much less usable than the classic start menu (CSM):


1. Keyboard navigation

In CSM I can press a key and activate a menu item starting with that letter. For example:
Win, U – Shutdown
Win, I – Internet Explorer
Win, S, C – Settings -> Control Panel
Win, P, W – Programs -> Word

If you name your programs and folders wisely you can access many frequently used programs with just 2 or 3 keys.

With NSM this is not possible. The search box steals all text input. It is possible to tab away from the search box and then you have some sort of keyboard navigation. It is still very limiting, thanks to problem #2.

2. Lack of cascading All Programs menu

In the CSM activating a folder item opens a cascading sub-menu. In the NSM the sub-items expand in the same list as their parent. This is a problem for multiple reasons:
  • Keyboard navigation is impacted. First, typing the first letter of a folder doesn’t expand it. You have to additionally press Enter or Right arrow. Second, since there is a mix of parent and child items in the same list, there is a much greater chance of items starting with the same letter.

  • Mouse navigation is impacted. In a cascading menu one can simply hover over an item to expand it, then move the mouse to the next item to expand, and so on. Makes it very easy to browse multiple folders quickly. In the NSM hovering doesn’t work and you have to click on the folder to expand it. When you do, the next folder moves down to make room for the sub-items, and you have to chase it with the mouse.

  • Screen space is not used efficiently. I have 1920x1200 pixels on my monitor, why can’t I use them? Instead, the NSM is all bunched in the corner. It would be perfect for a smart phone or a small touch-screen device. When I’m working on my desktop I don’t really care how cool or useful the menu would have been on my phone.

3. The search functionality makes the NSM dynamic

You can’t rely on the same command producing the same result every time. Practically that makes it impossible to learn quick shortcuts like Win+U or Win+I.

Do you want to start Internet Explorer? How about typing “I”? That brings the latest website URL that has I in the name. Maybe “In”? Nope – it finds “Remote Zoom In”. “Int” must do it then. You wish. I have to type the whole thing “Internet” before “Internet Explorer” shows up in the search results. So basically I had to type 8 characters (not a monumental task by itself), and after each one I had to pause and wait for the search to complete, then scan the list of results, hoping to see what I'm looking for. Of course, that's my experience. On another computer it will give different results, which again proves my point.

Another example – search for WinRAR. Just “R”? Nuh-huh – you get “Adobe (R) blah-blah”. “RA”? Nope, “No items match your search”. “RAR”, still nada. You have to type the whole thing “WINRAR” before it is found. The list goes on – “Wordpad”, “Regedit” – I have to type the WHOLE THING before it even appears.

And the search is somewhat quirky. Type “C”. It finds “Koala.jpg”. WTF? THERE IS NO “C” IN “KOALA” OR “JPG”!

In contrast, the CSM is static. If a sequence of keys worked once, it will work the next time. You can train yourself to even longer sequences because they would never change. I can press P+T+D for Programs -> Text -> Dictionary without even thinking or looking at the screen.

4. Consistency

The CSM is very consistent. Everything is a menu. The same rules and key-presses apply everywhere.

The NSM has 4 distinct areas, each with its own UI. There is the search box where you type. There is the “Programs” list, which has folders that expand in place. There is the “Places” list, which has folders that fly out. And there is the shutdown area that has 2 buttons and a menu. Each piece may be fine by itself, but all 4 put together are a nightmare, especially when you use the keyboard.

5. Jack of all trades

Basically the NSM tries to do multiple jobs, while not being particularly good at either one. There are better tools for most tasks. You can:
  • run a program. The classic start menu can be more efficient when organized properly
  • browse programs. The classic menu is so much better at this because of the hierarchical menus and better mouse and keyboard support
  • run commands. The Run box (Win+R) is better because it has auto-complete for the recently used commands
  • find a document. Windows Explorer is much better because you can specify search locations and more complex search terms
  • search the Internet. Internet Explorer is better at that
  • search for a program if you know exactly how to spell its name. Well, you got me there. There is no alternative for this :)

Hey, wait a minute!

If the search is so bad how come the latest version of CSM has search?

Since the beginning of the Classic Shell project people have asked for a search feature. So I finally decided to add search but try to solve some of the problems of the Windows implementation.
  • the search box can be set to be inactive when the menu opens, so it won't steal the keys you are typing
  • the search doesn't try to be too smart. The only "smart" feature is that the programs you use often will show up at the top of the list. If that's too smart for you it can be turned off
  • the search looks only for items in the start menu and programs in the PATH environment variable. It will always return predictable results because it doesn't index the whole harddrive, doesn't search for documents or web history, and doesn't look at the metadata
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