The Windows Start menu super guide — Part I


Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Since the debut of Windows 95, the Start menu has offered an easily navigated and extensible haven for all the programs we don’t use every day.

In Part 1 of a series of stories on getting the most out of Windows’ Start menu, we start with the basics: pinning applications, folders, and files.

Future installments will cover just about everything you need to know about the Start menu — how to use it, change it, gussy it up, anddress it down. The Start menu is something we use dozens of times a day. Take a few minutes and make it look the way you want it to!

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Although Win7′s Start menu has a slightly different look from Windows XP’s classic design, in many ways they work the same. And though the techniques covered in this series focus on Win7′s version, you’ll find that many of these tips apply to XP’s Start menu as well.

Classic version or new, the Windows Start menu has three major sections (shown in Figure 1), each giving different approaches to navigating Windows.

  • Left column: This section holds items (programs, folders, and files) that you use frequently. Those above the faint line are items pinned there by the user; those below the line are recently invoked programs — at least those programs started via the Start menu — and automatically added by Windows.

  • Right column: This list provides shortcuts to many of Windows 7′s predefined folders and libraries plus quick access to key features such as the Devices and Printers panel and the Control Panel. Most Windows users probably think it’s a fixed list, but it’s not — you can customize it.

  • Bottom: In addition to the Shut down button found in Windows XP, the bottom of Win7′s Start menu now has the always-useful Search programs and files box.

The windows 7 start menu
Figure 1. The Windows 7 Start menu is made up of three sections to make finding applications, folders, files, and system tools easier.

Let’s start by taking a look at how you can change the left-hand list of programs, folders, and files. If you want to make the changes apply to different user accounts on a PC, you have to be logged in with administrator rights.

Making simple changes to the Start menu

First, a note about terminology. All versions of Windows between Win95 and WinXP had a button in the lower-left corner of the desktop emblazoned with “Start.” In Vista and Win7, Microsoft replaced the classic square Start button with a frilly (and unlabeled) round button, which practically everyone except Microsoft refers to as the “orb.” (Surprisingly, you can even change the orb.) To minimize confusion, I’ll tell you to click Start — which on Win7, of course, means to click the orb. Fair enough?

Changing much of the Start menu is a cinch. Here’s a review of how to make several of the most common Start menu changes:

  • To change the picture of the current user (the picture in the upper-right corner of the Start menu — a daisy by default), simply click it. Windows takes you through the necessary steps.

  • To remove a program from the pinned list in the upper-left corner or the most recently used list below, right-click the entry you don’t want and choose Remove from This List.

  • To add a program to the pinned programs list, navigate to the program (by clicking, say, Start/All Programs), right-click the program and choose Pin to Start Menu.

  • If you bought a new computer with Windows 7 preinstalled, the computer maker might have sold one of the spots (or maybe two or three spots) on the Start menu to another product vendor. You can always delete those pesky Start menu advertisements by right-clicking them and choosing Remove from this list.

Amazingly, that covers about 80 percent of the questions I get about the Start menu.

Pinning to the Start menu — the rest of the story

There’s much more to the pinned list than first meets the eye.

The All Programs menu is the easiest place to find and pin applications, but you can also use Windows Explorer or the Start menu’s Search box. Once you’ve found the program file, simply right-click it and choose Pin to Start Menu.

If you want to pin a program currently on your Taskbar onto the Start menu, the simple right-click trick doesn’t work. When you right-click a Taskbar icon, you get the jump list — and there is no option to Pin to Start Menu. But there’s a trick. All the items on your Taskbar are stored as shortcuts in the folder

c:usersyour nameAppDataRoamingMicrosoftInternet ExplorerQuick LaunchUser PinnedTaskBar.

Navigate to that folder in Windows Explorer, right-click on the item you want to put on your Start menu, and choose Pin to Start Menu. Voilà !

If you pin a program on the Start menu by right-clicking on it and choosing Pin to Start Menu, Windows creates a separate, pinned copy in the Start menu. Your original — the program you right-clicked — stays where it was. If you right-click a program listed in the recently used section of the Start menu and move it to the pinned section, again: the original program doesn’t move, but Windows does take the entry off the recently used list.

You can put pinned programs into any order you like. When the program, file, or folder gets pinned, it appears at the bottom of the pinned pile. To change the order, just click-and-drag the program to any other spot in the pinned list.

Even better, you can give your pinned programs names that you prefer. Right-click the program and choose Properties. On the General tab, change the name in the top box to whatever you want to show on the Start menu.

Pinning folders and files to the Start menu

Many online help sites tell you that you need to edit the Registry or create a complex shortcut to pin folders to the Start menu. In Windows 7, you don’t need to do any of that. Just click and drag the folder to the pinned list as I explain here, and you’re done. The same trick works for files, too. While the technique I mention here isn’t exactly undocumented, it’s certainly not well known.

To pin a folder or file — or just about anything else — to the Start Menu, navigate to the folder or file and left-click it. Now drag it down to the Start orb. Hover for a moment or two, and the Start menu opens. Keep dragging the file or folder up to the pinned list. Settle on the location you’d like, and drop the file or folder. (There is, unfortunately, not a simple way to pin a folder to the taskbar.)

If you pin an Office template file to the Start Menu — a Word .dotx or Excel .xlt file, for example — every time you select the template in the Start Menu, Windows will start the application (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, whatever) with a new document based on that template. That’s the fastest way I know to work with form letters.

The drag-and-drop trick also works on programs that don’t show Pin to Start Menu when you right-click on them. It’s really that easy.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll show you how to take control of your most recently used programs list and change the All Programs menu. In Part 3, I’ll look at changing the items on the right side of the Start Menu.

Have a favorite Start menu trick? Post it! Drop by the Lounge and show us your stuff.

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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.