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The Start Menu Mess

Here's a fun exercise that can shed some light on just how broken the Windows experience has become.

1: Read Microsoft's instructions to developers on how they're supposed to use the Start menu. (To summarize briefly: Only provide shortcuts to actual programs, not their their readme or help files, settings or uninstallers; don't hide these shortcuts inside folders; use short, self-explanatory program names for these shortcuts.)

2: Take a look at your own computer's Start menu and see how many programs were written according to those guidelines.

3. For bonus points, see how many Microsoft programs complied with those guidelines.

This isn't just something that affends computing neatniks like myself: Because the Start menu is so larded up with so much junk that has nothing to do with helping you find and run your programs, you have to waste time and run up your mouse's odometer navigating to actual application shortcuts. (It doesn't help that the Start menu has become one of the slower parts of my two primary Windows machines, regularly stalling out before it can finish drawing itself and again respond to a mouse click.)

The only real improvement to this problem has come in Windows Vista, which does away with the "All Programs" sub-menu that cascades across the screen--and blocks access to most of your desktop in the process. Instead, you can just type a program's name and, in a moment, have it selected for you.

If you can find any developers that have actually complied with those Microsoft guidelines in all of their releases, feel free to compliment them in the comments. Otherwise, you're welcome to rant about the worst offenders.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 17, 2007; 9:52 AM ET
Categories:  Windows  
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Opera is good in that way. I don't much care for sub-menus. Just give me the program.

Posted by: stevo | July 17, 2007 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I actually reorganized my Start menu so only the programs I use regularly show up on the first program level. Everything else was tossed into a "Useless" folder. Unfortunately, there are several programs out there that only release updates by reinstalling the new version (I'm looking at you, Winamp) which always creates a new Start folder. If only these programs had some sort of "user has customized the Start menu flag".

Posted by: dgc | July 17, 2007 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I like the start menu as it now exists. I use it for rarely to occasionally used programs. The menu is mostly in alphabetical order (how did I do that?), so easy to search. Those I use regularly are on the desk top.

Posted by: MMRudy | July 17, 2007 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I use the dock on my Mac, and I use the Quickstart icons on my PC (at work). I love the apple spotlight index. Keyboard command + type a few letters = instant access to any app on my computer no matter what folder it's hiding in.

Posted by: SG | July 17, 2007 2:32 PM | Report abuse

There are things about windows that annoy me but don't find myself complaining about the Start Menu very often.

Posted by: Ugh | July 17, 2007 3:10 PM | Report abuse

The worst offender is Microsoft itself. Vista loads with about ten Microsoft programs on the top of the Start Menus that I don't use. When I tried to create a new folder into which to move them, I couldn't find an easy way to do this. The only way I could do it was go to Windows Explorer | User | Start Menu folder and doing it manually from there. That entailed changing Folder Options to show protected files/folders and then changing folder permissions. I know that I missed the easy way.

Posted by: David | July 17, 2007 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I haven't used the Start Menu in XP in a long time. Launchy allows you to simply type a few letters to launch programs, Web sites and even files easily like in Vista. It's free and you can get it here:
I have no affiliation, I'm just a happy user.

Posted by: Boyd | July 17, 2007 6:56 PM | Report abuse

OEMS (especially Packard Hell) are extremely profligate in the amount of junk they throw onto the Start Menu and desktop.

They regularly beat up on Microsoft for more control over the Windows desktop, and what do they do? Throw litter all over it.

Then there's all the stuff that goes into Start-up folder or services, often just dialing home to the OEM or one of the ISVs whose products they've excreted onto the machine.

Google's Picasa is another that always creates a new folder with an update.

If you move Symantec's AV tools to a Start Menu subfolder, then the program produces an inscrutable error every time it starts up. (It doesn't say "I don't like it that you've moved the menu items for a resident program that is not invoked actively every day to a less prominent position" but just throws up some numerical code."

Posted by: Mike | July 18, 2007 4:57 AM | Report abuse

Using the early Vista betas I was annoyed with the way the Start Menu was laid out. I found out that using the search box was a lot easier rather than looking for programs. I'm a convert now, can't remember the last time I went through the Start Menu looking for a program.

Posted by: Frank | July 18, 2007 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Goshkins, Rob! A Windoze Vista feature that allows you to "... just type a program's name and, in a moment, have it selected for you." I've had that feature on my SCO UNIX box since 1989. It's called the command line prompt. What will they think of next?

Posted by: Frank G | July 18, 2007 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I tend to launch all of my apps using the Quick Launch bar right next to the Start Menu. I hate having lots of icons on my desktop, and the few programs I use the most are easy to find there.

Posted by: tschroeder | July 18, 2007 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"affends"? Hmm.

Posted by: Jeff | July 19, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Hi Rob - I use Google desktop, I find it even better than Spotlight (which is still good) and I have nothing on my desktop, not even the hard drive. Everything is accessed either via Google desktop (two command key clicks and it's instantly in the middle of my desktop, type a couple of letters of the item you want and hit return) or in my dock if an app is open. Mac OSX is so simple, so clean and so ahead of the play. Gotta love it.

Posted by: Ash | July 19, 2007 3:52 PM | Report abuse

"... and I have nothing on my desktop, not even the hard drive."

In 25 years I've never had the hard drive on my desktop. Why in the world would anyone want to do that?

Posted by: mcgillicuddy | July 19, 2007 7:15 PM | Report abuse

To dgc: You CAN install a new Winamp over a previous version without generating the new Start Menu group (or desktop icon, or system tray icon, or QuickLaunch icon.) There are checkboxes to permit or refuse those options which are part of the install process, and those are usually remembered from the most recent install. However, it never seems to remember that I didn't want the eMusic icon and free MP3s....

Posted by: Stratocaster | July 19, 2007 9:39 PM | Report abuse

Worse, if your account does not have Administrator privileges (and of course these days, everyone is supposed to NOT have admin privileges on their everyday account), you effectively can't change the menu. That is, you can add to it, but you can't remove anything that is on the All Users menu (like Solitaire, the read-me's, and all the other trash).

Worse yet, some of the items on the All Users menu are not programs that a non-Administrator can use, so it makes even less sense.

On my PC at work (for which I do not have Administrator privileges), I have created a sub-menu for the programs I actually use. And in my sub-menu, I can rename "Microsoft Office2003 Word" to "Word". It's the only way I can control the mess, and I just ignore all the other menu junk.

Posted by: mcswell | July 20, 2007 12:53 AM | Report abuse

Rob does this all the time
"The only real improvement to this problem has come in Windows Vista, which does away with the "All Programs" sub-menu that cascades across the screen--and blocks access to most of your desktop in the process. Instead, you can just type a program's name and, in a moment, have it selected for you.

Don't tell you there's a simple fix:
Right click Start. Click "Properties/Customize/Advanced/Scroll Programs" which gives you a nice up and down scroll of all your Programs.
We always love to bash MS, even when there's an easy solution.

Posted by: Pete Crane | July 24, 2007 1:35 PM | Report abuse

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