With Windows 10 seemingly just around the corner, Microsoft plans to fix one of its most egregious mistakes with Windows 8: the missing Start menu. By now you may know the story, as the company has gradually backtracked throughout various updates since the OS launched in late 2012. And Windows 10 will bring the real thing back, albeit in an enhanced fashion that doesn’t depend on fiddly per-user shortcuts and extra folders.
The thing is, unless you’re willing to experiment with Windows 10 Technical Preview, the new version won’t help you yet. For several years now, every Windows desktop and laptop sold in a store comes with Windows 8. While Windows 8.1 Update somewhat improves the situation, it’s still no Windows 7 when it comes to ease of use.
Here’s the problem, in a nutshell: Let’s say you’ve just installed Windows 8.1 for the first time, or perhaps bought your first Windows 8 PC. After poking around for a bit you’ve finally found your way to the desktop. In the bottom left corner, you’ll see what looks like the Start button, but when you click it, you’ll be rewarded with a hideous new Start screen, not the Start menu that you know and love from Windows 7 and Vista. For some reason, despite the aforementioned series of updates over the last two years that are meant to make Windows 8 more user friendly for mouse-and-keyboard users, Microsoft is still forcing us to use the Metro interface instead of a real Start menu.
The good news is, despite Microsoft’s best efforts to ensure that the Start button and menu remain banished from its new OS, there are a bunch of third-party Windows 8 Start menu replacement apps that you can download today. Really, it goes to show how devoted the existing user base is. Microsoft completely stripped out the underlying Start menu code to quash potential Luddite revolutionaries, and yet now there are dozens of Start menu and Start button replacements — some of which are even superior to Microsoft’s own Windows 7 Start menu.
If you’re running Windows 8.1 today and want the Start menu back, take a look at our list of the best, least expensive, and most authentic Windows 8 Start menu replacements.
Windows 8 Start button and menu replacements
Start Menu Reviver 2
Start Menu Reviver 2 is a touch-screen-friendly option — one of the few that is, considering most people want the original Start menu back because they’re used to a keyboard and mouse. In this case, the new version is nicer, with plenty of sizing options and the ability to create shortcuts for documents, music, video, websites, and other tasks. It also embraces the Windows 8 tile design, without completely taking over the UI the way Windows 8 Metro does. It now includes scrolling tiles and a Windows 7-like mode as well.
Download Start Menu River 2 (free)
ViStart is one of the most customizable Start menu restorers for Windows 8, and lets you choose from a variety of skins. ViStart includes a blurred, translucent menu that integrated well with Windows 8, as well as a Windows 7-like Start Menu skin that we imagine some people will want to head straight for. It also speeds up program launches thanks to built-in indexing, and advertises a faster-than-Windows-7 search option for your local PC.
Download ViStart (free)
If you want a Windows 8 Start menu replacement that looks exactly like Windows 7, StartIsBack is for you. You get the same Start button orb icon, the same Start menu search box, the same jump lists, and — for better or worse — even the same Aero transparency. As you can see in the screenshot above, StartIsBack even detects if your system needs to restart to apply some patches; it really is just like the Windows 7 Start menu. Where StartIsBack diverges from the Windows 7 Start menu, though, is configurability: You can adjust which hot corners are enabled, make your PC jump straight to the Desktop when it first boots up, and configure a key combo to show the Windows 8 Start screen (Win+Ctrl by default).
Download StartIsBack ($3, free 30-day trial)
Where StartIsBack tries to replicate the Windows of yesteryear, Pokki (free) is very much its own beast — and as much as we love the Windows 7 Start menu, we have to admit that Pokki is probably even better. It utilizes a neat “pinning” system that isn’t unlike the home screen of your smartphone or tablet. You can also add widgets to Pokki, such as Gmail or Facebook, which display your latest email or status updates. By default, Pokki will configure your Windows 8 system to boot straight to the Desktop — and there is an option that will just completely disable the hot corners, if you so desire. (Remember, Win+C pops open the Charms menu, if you need.)
Download Pokki (free)