Windows 8 & Classic Shell

I really tried to like it. I gave it a full month to show me why it was better. It never really did.

I’m referring to the celebrated new UI for Windows 8. While Windows 8 has a number of performance improvements that, for the most part, make it worth the price of admission, it’s the interface changes everyone notices. The interface formerly known as Metro was trumpeted as kind of a big deal, unifying desktops, tablets, and phones under the one UI to rule them all. I’d say it almost pulls it off.

The Metro UI is very attractive. It’s both eye-catching and utilitarian. On phones and tablets, it presents a very intuitive way to navigate and view information. But on a laptop, I can’t imagine who might have ever thought it would make sense.

For anyone not familiar with the UI, upon logging in, you are presented with a multi-colored set of tiles - the “Home” screen. Some of the tiles are live, showing info like breaking news, feeds from your photo collection, and incoming mail. Others are essentially just large links to commonly used apps. You can scroll right to see more apps, apparently in no particular order. Or, you can just start typing to immediately switch to a nice app search screen.

One could argue that an ordered hierarchy, such as with the Windows 7 implementation of the Start button, makes more sense. Okay, I’ll do that. Why on Earth would I want to search for all my apps before I can launch them?

The old Start button, introduced with Windows ‘95, is gone. The Windows key now returns you from whatever application you are in to Home screen. It can also toggle back and forth between what is left of the old “Desktop” interface. Key system features are discreetly hidden under “Active” corners of the screen. Hover your mouse on the corners and be presented with various “Charms” for access to important functionality.

Another odd new feature is the decrease in availability of actual “windowed” apps, particularly from the home screen. Even from the desktop, the default music player, PDF reader and image viewer are all forced to full-screen mode and cannot be re-sized. Or closed. If I understand, this was done to reduce distractions?

Overall, I’d say almost every change in the interface has done nothing but annoy me. Fans of the UI will argue that you can do pretty much everything you used to, just by adjusting how you go about it. Assuming that’s true (it’s not), why would I want to? Despite attempting for a month to adjust and learn to love the new interface, it really did little but add friction between me and what I wanted to do. For instance, the tiled home screen, obviously designed for ease of navigation with one’s fingers, is useless without a capacitive screen. Even if I had one on my laptop, I can’t really see myself reaching across my keyboard to manipulate the screen when the mouse is simply easier to use. I did nothing with this screen but navigate past it every time I was forced to see it. Add to that the awkward application search implementation, the pointless full-screening, and the inconveniently placed hot corners, and I spent the month rather eager to get past my self-imposed “fair trial” of using the system as intended.

Once the calendar page flipped over to month two, I went straightaway to download "Classic Shell", an open source project aimed at letting people configure their start menus in whatever manner works best for them. Or restore it, in it’s entirety, should Microsoft inadvisedly remove it.

Classic Shell is a free download and an easy install. The default settings add an awful lot of what I was missing, but right clicking on your new Start button allows you a wide array of customization. Some of my favorite settings include:

* Change the Start button icon (to something more Win-8-ish)
* Skip the Metro “Home” screen (!!!!!!)
* Disable “Active” corners
* Select the menu style (XP, Vista, or Win 7)

When I was done, I was back to pretty much everything I had in Win 7 (except windowing for all apps), plus the performance improvements of Win 8. One more small registry hack to remove the “lock” screen that protects your laptop from accidental activation in case you keep it it in your pocket, and my new PC was almost worth the effort of the previous month.

In my personal opinion, Microsoft did its customers a disservice in pointlessly removing functionality that people have had for 20 years. Since I’m not alone with my kvetching, I can easily see them eventually seeing the light and restoring much of it. But there’s no point in waiting for that.