One of the most controversial aspects of the Windows 8 interface is the elimination of the Start menu, even when you're in desktop mode. Microsoft maintains that the relevant code has been removed so it's impossible to access, but with one simple free utility you can restore the Start menu to your Windows 8 system.
We've looked at partial workarounds such as the advanced context menu, but there's a much better solution: Classic Shell, which was originally designed to replace the Windows 7 start menu with the version included in XP.
I've long been a fan of Classic Shell as it makes it easier to launch applications with a single key from the Start menu, and it was one of the first things I tried to install on my Windows 8 test builds. Previous releases failed to work at all, but the recently updated version 3.61 runs beautifully on the RTM version of Windows 8 I'm running now.
As installed, when you hit the Windows key you'll get a stripped-back 'classic' Start menu, complete with search box, Programs folder and other familiar Windows elements. You can drag shortcuts onto the top of the menu, and then launch them by hitting the Start key and then hitting their initial letter.
That's great if you like minimalism, but many people prefer the richer Windows 7/Vista Start menu. Access the settings by right-clicking the button, and you can choose between the Classic, XP and Vista/7 menus. You can also customise many of the included elements.
That change doesn't mean you can't access the Windows 8 Start Screen; just use Shift-Windows instead of the Windows key alone. It's the best of both worlds. Classic Shell also includes options to restore earlier versions of Windows Explorer and IE, but I haven't installed those; right now, the Start menu is enough to keep me smiling.
I'm not saying everyone will want to use this. There's lots to enjoy in the Windows 8 interface, and if you're working on a tablet or only run newer apps that utilise the Windows 8/Metro style, you arguably don't need a Start menu.
However, if you'd like the choice or (like me) enjoy the better keyboard shortcuts this affords for launching desktop apps, Classic Shell solves the missing Start Menu problem while not stopping you using the newer interface when that suits. It will also be ideal for PC owners who are confused by the absence of a Start button and just want things "the way they were" on a new machine.