For the keyboard button that activates the start menu see Windows key.
|Included With:||Microsoft Windows 95 onwards|
|Replaces:||Program Manager in Windows 3.1|
|Related Components:||Windows Explorer|
On Windows operating systems before Windows Vista, and also in Windows Vista's "Windows Classic" theme, the Start Button consists of the word "Start" and the Windows Logo. In Windows Vista's new themes, the word "Start" has been replaced by a blue Windows "orb" logo.
Traditionally, the Start Menu provided a customizable nested list of programs for the user to launch, as well as a list of most recently opened documents, a way to find files and get help, and access to the system settings. Later enhancements via Windows Desktop Update included access to special folders like "My Documents," "Favorites" (browser bookmarks), etc. Windows XP's Start Menu was expanded to encompass various My Documents folders (including My Music and My Pictures), and transplanted other items like My Computer and My Network Places from the Windows desktop.
Technically, the Start Menu is not required, as all programs and files can be opened by navigating to them in the Windows Explorer interface. However, the Start Menu provides a much easier and consolidated way to open programs, even for experienced users. Microsoft uses the Start Menu more in each version of Windows as a way to shield novice users from the complexities of the operating system. For example, in Windows XP, the root, Program Files and Windows folders are hidden from the user by default, and access to programs is expected to be achieved through the Start Menu.
In the earliest versions of Windows, a program called MS-DOS Executive provided basic file management and program menu capability. This was eventually replaced by the programs File Manager and Program Manager in Windows 3.0, with the Program Manager taking on the role of the program menu.
The Program Manager was a full windowed application, which required the whole screen to be used effectively. It consisted of a simple multiple document interface which allowed users to open "program groups" and then execute the shortcuts to programs contained within.
Windows 95 was the version in which the Program Manager was superseded by the Start Menu, which condensed the Program Manager into a popup menu that could be accessed at any time, similar to the mechanic and functionality of the Macintosh "Apple Menu". It also boasted several advantages over the Program Manager, such as the ability to nest groups within other groups, and the ability to add to the Start Menu by dropping objects (program files, document files) onto the Start Button.
Later developments in Internet Explorer and subsequent Windows releases have allowed users to customize the Start Menu and access and expand Internet Explorer Favorites, My Documents and Administrative Tools (Windows 2000 and later) from the Start Menu.
The most significant revision to the Start menu since its inception came in Windows XP. To help the user access a wider range of common destinations more easily, and to promote a greater sense of "personality", the Start menu was expanded to two columns; the left-hand column focuses on the user's installed applications, while the right-hand column provides access to the user's documents, and system functionality. Links to the Documents, Pictures and other Special Folders are brought to the fore. The Computer and Network (Network Neighborhood in Windows 95 and 98) icons were also moved off the Desktop and into the Start menu, making it easier to access these icons while a number of applications are open (they could be restored optionally in the Display Properties control panel "Desktop" settings). Commonly used programs are automatically displayed in the left-hand menu, and the user may opt to "pin" programs to the start menu so that they are always accessible without having to navigate through the Programs folders.
In Windows Vista, the Start Menu has undergone some significant changes, with the taskbar icon no longer labeled "Start" but instead has the Windows pearl orb. At the top level, the Start Menu, as in Windows XP, has two columns of menu choices. Under the default configuration, the "Run," and "Printers" options do not appear. However, those items can be added to the Start Menu. One of the chief additions with Windows Vista is a Search pane or box, where users may begin typing immediately. The contents of the Start menu itself are indexed and searchable, besides the global search index. If indexing is turned on, the search box returns results on-the-fly as users type into it. This allows the Start menu to act as a fast and powerful application launcher. The Start menu search also doubles as the Run command from previous versions of Windows; simply typing any command will execute it. The Run command can also be added separately to the right column in the Start menu.
Another major change to the Start menu in Windows Vista is that it no longer presents the All programs menu as a horizontally expanding cascading list which utilizes the entire screen space, but instead as a nested folder view with a fixed size. The list of submenus and single items appears over the left column contents with a Back button below it. Subfolders expand and collapse vertically within the list when single-clicked, in a tree-like fashion similar to Windows Explorer. Single items appear at the top and folders appear at the bottom. Hovering the mouse over a folder does not open it, the folder needs to be clicked. A limitation of the new Start menu is that subfolders inside the All Programs menu cannot be opened simply by searching or double clicking. Also, as more programs are installed, a vertical scroll bar appears between the two columns. A dynamically changing icon showing the user's display picture by default is present at the top of the right column. It changes as users hover over any other item to reflect that item's icon. The Power button's action is configurable through Power options in the Control Panel, though the default setting is to put the computer into Sleep mode. Users can quickly lock their user account by pressing the Lock button. Additional power and account related actions are listed in a sub-menu which appears when the small arrow next to the Lock button is clicked.
Like Windows XP, Windows Vista allows users to switch back to the pre-Windows XP style "Classic" Start menu, however, the Search box is not present on the Classic Start menu.
In Windows 7, the most notable change is that the classic Start menu has been completely removed. Search results are overlaid on both columns of the Start menu. There is now a single power-related button (instead of two buttons in Windows Vista) with all other power actions accessible from the secondary pop-up menu. The right column links to the respective Libraries instead of ordinary folders. Items on the Start menu also support Jump lists through cascade buttons on their right.
The Start menu is also present in releases of Windows CE and Windows Mobile. In Windows Mobile Standard, the version of Windows Mobile for Microsoft specific Smartphones, the Start menu, when invoked, does not produce a list of applications, but instead produces a separate screen of icons. While in Windows CE as well as Windows Mobile Standard operating system releases, the Start menu is located by default at the bottom of the screen, in Windows Mobile Classic and Professional, it is located at the top of the screen.
Users may add entries by creating various folders and shortcuts in the Start Menu folder, located in the hard drive. These appear in a separated section at the top of the Start Menu, or, if placed in the Programs sub-folder, in the Programs menu.
In all examples above:x: represents the drive letter (C:, D:, etc...), You can access it by clicking on My Computer on the Desktop or Start Menu. username represents the name of the user. These places can be easily accessed by right-clicking on the Start button, and clicking Open or Open All Users.
Note: The folder name Start Menu has a different name on non-English versions of Windows. Thus for example on Chinese (Simplified) versions of Windows XP it is x:\Documents and Settings\username\「开始」菜单. This means any simple batch file that expects to find it under the name "Start Menu" will fail when run on these non-English versions of Windows. The Desktop folder similarly has different names. Windows installers generally use the Windows API to find out the real names and locations of the Start Menu and Desktop folders.
The "Start Button" and its menu were lauded as a leap forward in user friendliness and interface design when they were first introduced in Windows 95. The symbol of the Start Button was, and still is, used to advertise the product. Furthermore, Microsoft has embraced the word "start" as their "catch word", and it is frequently used in their advertising even today.
There are some undocumented features of the Start Menu, and opportunities for customization. For instance, in Classic Start Menu mode, dragging a file or program onto the Start Button creates a top-level Start Menu item. Shortcuts on the Start Menu folder with keyboard shortcut key(s) assigned respond throughout the Windows environment. The Windows Power Toy TweakUI offers many other customizations, including speeding up the response time of the Start Menu, window animation, and other "power user" hacks.  On Windows XP and Windows Vista, it is possible to prevent specific applications from appearing in the recent programs list by modifying the Windows registry. Many more tips and tricks are documented on the Web.