Return of the Desktop and Start Menu

Windows 10 moves back to the strength of Windows over its lifetime, and the desktop is certainly that. The Start Menu has been a staple of Windows since all the way back in Windows 95. It has evolved over the years, but the layout and functionality was always there. Windows 8 removed the Start Menu and replaced it with a Start Screen, which was great on a tablet but certainly less than ideal on a desktop. It was jarring to move from the desktop to the start screen, and the layout of it was inefficient when accessing it with a mouse or trackpad. Windows 10 brings back the Start Menu, but with some changes.

The hierarchical nature of the Windows 7 start menu, with Start leading to All Programs, then individual folders, and shortcuts inside, has been replaced with a miniature version of the Start Screen from Windows 8, including the live tiles. While this may not please everyone, it is still functionally a lot easier to access than the Start Screen, and most importantly there is not the jarring sensation that Windows 8 had. The live tiles do fit in well though with the new look, and they still offer the extra information that live tiles are known for. The one issue with them is that it can be difficult to find apps when the image changes. This is somewhat exacerbated when you have multiple devices and the live tiles are not in the same location. One of the features that I quite liked in Windows 8 was being able to sync the start screen layout among devices, and for reasons I can’t understand that has been removed from Windows 10.

Accessing all apps is different than Windows 7. Instead of a heirarchical list of folders there is just an alphabetical list of all apps that you can scroll through, but the list can itself contain folders so there can be some organization. You can also click on the letter headers to bring up an alphabet in order to jump to any letter. This is not new to Windows, but it will be new to people moving from Windows 7. Being able to sort applications into folders is obviously nice when you have a lot of apps. One possible solution would be the live folders from Windows Phone, and perhaps they will make their way to Windows 10 at some point. Regardless, on the desktop, the Start Menu functions a lot better than the Start Screen ever did. When you move to a touch mode, the Start Menu switches to a full screen mode for use with touch, and as we will get into in the touch section, evolving the UI to work for the different user interfaces is a lot better solution than trying to make one UI work for both.

There is also one bug with the Start Menu which may affect some users. The Start Menu can only handle around 512 apps, and while that is a pretty large number, it is still going to affect some people so hopefully this can get sorted out quickly. If you do go over the limit, the list is truncated. I have not run into this myself, but be warned if you are a heavy user of software that consists of lots of applications.

If the Start Menu was the only change to the desktop, it may have been enough for Windows 10. Windows 8 and 8.1 brought some nice upgrades to the desktop that were overshadowed by the Start Screen changes. The new task manager, for instance, is much improved over the Windows 7 version. It also brought the ability to natively mount ISO images, file copies were improved, and many other things that were nice benefits to Windows 8. But luckily, Windows 10 goes far beyond just a Start Menu when discussing desktop improvements.

The most obvious change, and perhaps even more welcome than the Start Menu, is Windows Store apps can now run in a window. Most of my frustrations with Windows 8 was how when you double clicked a photo file, the default app was the Windows 8 version of photos and it would take over the entire display. Like the Start Screen, it was a jarring experience, and when you are on the desktop this is just a poor UI decision. With Windows 10, when running in non-tablet mode, apps like photos now correctly open in a window which can be resized and moved around. In Windows 8, the tablet mode was forced upon all, and although you could change what the default apps were and avoid that interface to some extent, it was the default. With Windows 10, rather than force the tablet apps upon users, the tablet apps themselves can now morph from windowed mode to tablet mode, which is a much better solution.

One feature that started its life in Windows 7 was Aero Snap, which let you position and resize windows by dragging them to the sides to split the screen, or to the top to expand the window to full screen. Windows 10 improves on that with Snap Assist. When you use Snap to split a window to half the display, Snap Assist will display a list of other windows that are open so you can easily pick the one you wanted in the other half of the display. Generally when you snap a window to the side, you want to snap another window to the other side, so this makes a lot of sense, but you can also hit escape to close Snap Assist or just click on the desktop to close it. Snap Assist is one of those features that you get used to really quickly, and moving back to a device that doesn’t have it feels like a step back.

One other perk of the new snapping features is that if you resize a window on the side to a value other than 50%, when you snap another window to the other side it will automatically fill whatever space is left. It’s a small change but once again another nice change that is welcome, especially when you consider how Windows 8 took a step back when it came to window management because none of the new apps could be run in a window. The changes introduced in Windows 10 have more than rectified this, and Windows 10 is a nice step ahead of Windows 7 in this regard.

If you really have a lot of windows that you like to manage, you may be a fan of a long requested feature coming in the latest version of Windows. Virtual Desktops are now in. This has long been a feature of other operating systems, and you could always add it to Windows with an add-in, but it is now a native feature. I discussed this in our Windows 10 first impressions post, and that was very early on in Windows 10’s development cycle. Some changes have been made to how they operate which I find make the experience a lot better. By default, apps open on another virtual desktop no longer show on the current desktop’s taskbar. I think this makes a lot more sense, since if the point is to have lots of windows open, but separate, I would not want my taskbar packed full. Alt-Tab now, by default, only shows apps that are open on the current desktop, which once again helps to separate them and make them their own workspace. But if you would prefer to change these defaults, there are options in settings to allow you to choose virtual desktop behaviour.

Introduction More Desktop Changes
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  • Brett Howse - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    Page 4 on Continuum. Overall it's a slight step back on touch.
  • marvdmartian - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    [from the last page of the article] "But is this going to be the upgrade to move people off of Windows 7? In my opinion, yes it is."

    Perhaps in your world. Not so much, in mine. Nor, in many people I've talked to, who are equally unimpressed with this latest version of Windows.

    In fact, so far, what I've seen (though, I admit, not yet experienced) of W10, I'd label it more of a Windows 8.2.....maybe 8.25. Still blocky looking. Still looks like the icons were drawn by a 3rd grader (no offense to the average 8 year old). Still.....just plain UGLY.

    I understand the reasoning for the postage stamp sized blocks, as it makes touch interface much easier. But if they want TRUE switch-ability between touch interface and mouse/keyboard usage, they need to change the look of things, to go with the 2nd choice. Then there's also the return to the 90's screen resolution. Necessary for touch interface, perhaps. But when a person has spent hundreds of dollars on a high resolution monitor, then "upgrades" to Windows 10 (8.25?), they do NOT want to have to dial back their resolution to that which was supported first by what? Windows 98??

    And don't even get me started in on the privacy issues. Yes, some people might not have a problem with the information Microsoft is gathering. But I'm betting plenty more will, once they're made aware of it. And for MS to force you to opt OUT of information gathering, makes them somewhat "big brother"-ish, in my book.

    Sorry, Brett, but in my book, Microsoft is quickly striking out with this operating system. As far as their support of Windows 7, don't be surprised if they don't extend it, just as they did with Windows XP, if the majority of 7 users don't bother upgrading to 10.
  • chrome_slinky - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    Unfortunately, for people who think, we must realize that the average user IS stupid, and FREE is making them weak in the knees.

    I will be on Windows 7 until 2020 at least, and carefully removed the "updates" which install more telemetry from my list of updates.

    BTW, you could always use the "illudium235 space modulator" to take care of things, couldn't you? <g>
  • uhuznaa - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    I'm sick of repeating this over and over but you really shouldn't confuse "is not interested in how computers work" with "stupid". I've seen people who are really bright in their fields totally struggling with their computers because they're just not interested in nor care for how these things work.

    It's like calling you "stupid" because you are not interested in knitting your own sweaters. I bet there are thousands of things you don't care for and are not interested in which others who are not necessarily smarter than you are really good in.

    On the other hand not understanding this may be reason enough to call you stupid.
  • Michael Bay - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    So, it`s you and your two and a half friends. Such tremendous loss for MS, certainly, somewhere in some basement Nadella is crying crocodile tears.
  • Da W - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    I moved from the FRENCH version of windows 7 to the FRENCH version of windows 8 to the FRENCH update of windows 8.1, somehow it installed the ENGLISH version of windows 10.
  • chrome_slinky - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    Zut alors!
  • Billy_Boy - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    The most thorough, well thought out review of ANY product I have read in a long, long time.

  • milkod2001 - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    I gave it a try and got w10 installed on top of my w7. All took about 30 minutes. All applications/games are working which is great. But that got me thinking what is WINDOWS 10?

    It feels just like windows 7.1 upgrade. New graphic interface, better boot time and slightly faster copy of files. OK lets not forget dx12 and Cortana. It took MS 6 years since release of w7 to put together this massive update and call it w10. Now i get why MS gave it to us for FREE. It just could not dare to charge us for bunch of mediocre updates.

    Happy w10 user here :)

  • azazel1024 - Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - link

    Can I just say, if you are coming from Windows 7, Windows 10 is a fairly nice upgrade. If you are coming from Windows 8.1, especially if you have a touch interface, it is a serious reversion in almost every possible way. Most of the apps seems half finished at best. As eluded to in the story, the mail client is about 10 steps back from the one in 8.1. How basic is it to have the ability to change from conversation view? Photos app doesn't support the ability to view images by folder (which can be nice instead of seeing every single one of your pictures spread out by date). Edge can't download some file types, so you have to open them in IE11. If you want to change audio volume, there is no option to do that in the action center (plenty of room for a button for it). So for a tablet, you have to pull up the task bar to do it, which doesn't make sense. Want to change a wifi network? Oh, there is a button in the action center to do...oh, it only turns Wifi on and off...but, wait, there is an airplane mode button also in there to do that. Oh, you can long press on the wifi button, then go in to settings and then select a different wifi network. Want to change the brightness to anything other than 25/50/75/100%, long press again and go in to settings and then you can adjust it from 0-100% in 1% increments. But...why can't there at least be a 0% brightness on that short cut button? 25% is too bright in a dark room. WHY!

    Sooooooo much of Windows 10 from what I have seen is "why in the hell would you do it that way?" Sure, some stuff in 8.1 was non-intuitive and took awhile to get used to, but a lot of stuff was a quick gesture and done. Want to change the brightness or audio? Swipe in the charms bar, hit the button and adjust away. Now they are found in different places and one of them takes several extra actions to really be able to adjust where you want it. Many of the apps have lost functionality, even if they look a little nicer or have a few new and nice features. I love that Edge is faster, but it sucks for touch input now and a lot of features have been lost that were highly useful, even with keyboard and mouse input.

    Windows 10 at best feels half finished as an operating system. I don't mean "they'll innovate the 'OS as a Service that is Windows 10'". I mean, they needed to have spent at least a few more months baking this thing before sending it out the door and if a lot of this stuff isn't "changed" or give the user the ability to customize (why not add more options that you can add to the action center? What about allowing the user to ELIMINATE options in the action center too, I don't need half the crap that is in there as a short cut) then frankly Win 10 is a big step backward in a lot of ways.

    I am willing to give it a try for awhile, but I am itching every single day to reload Windows 8.1 on my Asus T100. I am certainly not going to load Windows 10 on any of my other machines for a very long time to come (either right before the 1 year upgrade period ends, or possibly never).

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