Friday, February 14, 2014

Taming Windows 8.1 (Part 1)

As you may have gathered from an earlier post, I recently acquired a new laptop that came with Windows 8.1 preinstalled. While generally satisfied with the hardware, one downside was that hardware drivers were difficult to find for anything except Windows 8.1. In other words, if I wanted to use this computer to its full potential, I would have to stick with Microsoft's latest opus.

Windows 8.1 "Modern" Interface
This wasn't my first encounter with Windows 8, of course. I had run the beta for several months prior to its release, and even had a copy of the retail version that came with another computer (fortunately, I had an extra Windows 7 license and the hardware was fully compatible so I didn't have to use it!). Like many, I found Windows 8 uncomfortable to use, largely because of how radically - and poorly - Microsoft had revamped the interface. Nearly twenty years of graphic user interface evolution was flushed down the toilet in order to that Microsoft could present a common interface between PCs, tablet computers, Windows Phones and its XBox game console. The results of trying to mesh the needs of so many varied platforms with one single interface was as disastrous as might be expected. While there have been a few professed fans, by and large the change was met with anger and may have been part of the reason PC sales have plummeted so precipitously in recent years.

None of this was unknown to me, of course; I read the news, I had experienced Windows 8 for myself. I knew what I was getting into. Fortunately, I also knew that - thanks to enterprising developers - a lot of the horrors of the so-called Modern interface could be disappeared with the additions of a handful of software tools. If I had to use Windows 8.1, then I would do so in a way that minimized its worst parts.

This is that story.

First to be installed was Classic Shell. This project is a free, open-source application that can be used to completely banish the horrid Modern Start Screen, allowing the user to boot to a desktop that to all intents and purposes looks like Windows XP or Windows 7. There remain a few areas  -for instance, the screen where you select your wireless network - where a few remnants of the Modern interface remain, but these are not too bothersome.  Installation of Classic Shell is exceptionally easy. Once it is installed, however, you have numerous options you can tweak to your heart's delight.

Classic Shell Start Button Config
The first thing that needed a bit of adjustment was the Start Menu. Although Windows 8.1 had returned the Start button to the desktop, clicking it merely took you back to the dreaded Modern Start Screen. ClassicShell returned the original functionality back to the button, but some of the default stylistic choices were not to my taste. Fortunately, like many open source programs, users are given lots of choice on how to change things. Right clicking on the Start Menu popped up a little context menu; selecting "Settings" allowed me to to get into the guts of the program.

I decided to go with the Windows 7 style menu; you can also choose the "classic" single-column start menu introduced in Windows95, or the two-column menu of Windows XP. However, since many of my other PCs are running Windows 7, I felt it better to have a unified, consistent interface across all the computers. First thing I had to do, though, was replace the default non-trademark infringing Start button that ships with Classic Start; a quick Google search found me a working replacement. I chose the custom option and pointed the program to the downloaded image file (I later learned that this file is not cached anywhere, so if you later delete it the program reverts to the default).

Classic Shell Start Menu Options
With the button sorted out, now it was time work on the actual Start menu. Classic Shell again offers a host of options which allow you to mix and match features from XP, Vista and Windows 7. I like a nice and clean Start Menu, with a minimum of links. After over two decades of using Windows, I know all the keyboard shortcuts anyway. I enabled Computer, Recent Items, Control Panel, Devices and Printers and Run, and told ClassicShell to hide the rest. A nice feature of the program is that you can actually change the order in which these items appear on the menu; even Microsoft's shell never offered that functionality!

Classic Start Main Menu Options

Finally, I needed to clean up the Programs folder. Most important to me, was hiding as much of  Windows 8 - including all references to the Apps and Store - that I could. Fortunately this just required a few button clicks, specifically unchecking "Show Metro Apps", checking "Hide App Shortcuts" and unchecking "Show Recent Metro Apps" in the "Main Menu" section of the program.

With the Start menu taken care of, I was halfway there. Already Windows 8.1 was looking like a useable desktop instead of the abominable bastard-child of a tablet and an XBox. But the job's not done yet.

Windows 8.1 with Classic Start installed

No comments:

Post a Comment