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The Evolution of the Windows Start Menu: Windows 95 to Windows 10

windows start menu evolution

The new Start Menu in Windows 10 is a major feature for many users who avoided the Windows 8 upgrade, which infamously replaced the Start Menu with a full-screen, touch-optimized Start Screen. But as we’ve mentioned previously, the Windows 10 Start Menu isn’t quite the same [1] as the “traditional” Start Menu found in operating systems like Windows XP and Windows 7.

So that got us thinking about how the Start Menu has changed in the nearly 20 years since it made its consumer debut with Windows 95 [2]. Older Windows users like us have experienced each iteration over the years, but things changed so gradually that it’s hard to imagine a direct comparison between the different Windows versions, and those who are younger or new to Windows may have never seen the early Start Menus at all.

To help us keep things in perspective as we adjust to the new Windows 10 Start Menu, we thought that a nice high quality comparison of the history of the Windows Start Menu was in order. We keep at least one VM from every major operating system on hand at all times, so we decided to fire up all consumer versions of Windows dating back to Windows 95 and grab some screenshots illustrating the evolution of the Start Menu. You can find the gallery on the following pages, along with some information about each Windows release. Just use the buttons below to navigate, and click on any image to get a full-sized view.

Are any of the Windows Start Menus, particularly the early ones, new to you? Now that you’ve seen the clear evolution of the Start Menu, what are your thoughts on the direction that Microsoft is taking it in Windows 10? Let us know in the comments!

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows 95 start menu desktop [12]

Windows 95

Codename: Chicago
General Availability: August 24, 1995

Windows 95 represented a dramatic shift in Microsoft’s desktop operating system strategy. Although still running on top of MS-DOS, Windows 95 contained a complete operating system in which virtually all standard tasks could be performed. The new Windows 95 desktop could now store any user file, including application shortcuts, documents, and other files, while the brand new Start Menu provided quick access to common functions and a complete list of user programs. Although primitive by modern standards, the Windows 95 Start Menu still offered access to the most important items that a Windows 95-era user would need: programs, documents, system settings, search (Find), Windows help, the command prompt, and power options. Not bad for a tiny little menu 20 years ago.

Looking at other innovations in Windows 95, the new taskbar offered a convenient method for managing open programs, and the system tray granted access to frequently accessed system info like the date and time, speaker volume, and communications status. Close, minimize, and maximize buttons were also available on every program and system window for the first time, greatly improving window and application management.

On the technical side of things, Windows 95 introduced support for plug and play devices, the FAT32 file system, preemptive multitasking, and the TCP/IP communications protocol which gave users easy access to the Internet via the rapidly growing dial-up connection industry. Microsoft’s infamous browser, Internet Explorer, also made its debut in Windows 95, although as part of a free upgrade in the summer of 1995.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows 98 start menu desktop [23]

Windows 98

Codename: Memphis
General Availability: June 25, 1998

Although visually similar to Windows 95, Windows 98 brought a number of end-user and technical improvements, many of which were focused on consumers as opposed to business and enterprise users, the usual target of Microsoft’s efforts. Support for USB devices, DVD discs, new desktop wallpaper formats, and advanced AGP-based video cards all catered to consumers’ increasing demands for multi-media entertainment on their PCs, and Active Desktop — a new feature that let users run live HTML content as their Windows background — let users customize the look of their PC like never before (unfortunately, Active Desktop had a number of performance issues [24] and proved to be a potential security vulnerability, so it was eventually removed from later versions of Windows).

A number of improvements and additions were also introduced in Windows 98 to make the process of configuring and managing a PC easier for novice users, including an entirely new and interactive Help utility, automated wizards for tasks like Disk Defragment and drive consistency checks, and file backup. Windows 98 was also more stable and efficient overall, with improved memory management and significantly faster boot and shut down times.

The Windows 98 Start Menu grew a bit compared to its predecessor, by offering the ability to quickly log out of the active user account. The menu also featured Windows Update in its own section at the top, and a new “Favorites” folder for user-defined shortcuts to files and programs. Windows 98 also saw the introduction of the Quick Launch [25] section of the taskbar, which let users pin frequently access programs for quick access. Quick Launch also contained a handy “show desktop” button, which would minimize all windows at once so that the user could quickly check their desktop for a particular file or setting.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows 2000 start menu desktop [26]

Windows 2000 Professional

Codename: None* [27]
General Availability: February 17, 2000

While Windows 98 focused on consumers, Windows 2000 was Microsoft’s push to move its business customers to a single new operating system. Previous versions of Windows NT were primarily targeted at high-end business users and servers, but Windows 2000 leveraged the advanced Windows NT code base while still providing a familiar and usable interface for office workstations and power users.

Despite the different codebase, the Windows 2000 Professional Start Menu was nearly identical to consumer versions of Windows, with the ability to access all installed programs, user documents, settings, search, and the command prompt all with just a few clicks. One notable change that would later become a standard Windows feature was a quick shortcut to Program Access and Defaults, where users could set the default programs for each file type or activity, add or remove Windows components, and uninstall existing programs.

Turning to the technical side, Windows 2000 significantly expanded the list of supported devices like printers, scanners, modems, and digital cameras, and took advantage of new technologies like IEEE 1394 (FireWire), wireless networking, and infrared network links. Productivity was enhanced thanks to multi-monitor support, and some consumer features even made their way to the operating system, including DVD playback support to help pass the time on those long business trips.

Windows 2000 would prove to be a seminal release for Microsoft, as it represented the initial push to unify the more advanced NT code base with the more user-friendly 9x [28] feature set to provide a single foundation for all Windows users. This goal would be achieved with the release of Windows XP, but Microsoft had one more stop to make…

*Dave Thompson, the Microsoft software engineer in charge of the network subsystem for Windows NT, explained [29] that project chief Jim Allchin [30] “didn’t like codenames,” leaving Windows 2000 as one of the few major Microsoft releases to not have a codename.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows me start menu desktop [31]

Windows ME

Codename: Millenium
General Availability: September 14, 2000

Perhaps no other version of Windows receives as much grief as Windows ME (Millenium Edition), and while much of the criticism [32] directed toward it is deserved, the operating system still served an important role in introducing several new features and technologies.

Targeted exclusively at consumers, Windows ME was based on the same 9x code base as Windows 98, and was similar to its predecessor in many regards. Although Microsoft planned to continue the merger of consumer and business versions of Windows that began with Windows 2000, the result of that effort — Windows XP — was still more than a year from completion, leaving Microsoft to release Windows ME as a stopgap for its consumer market.

As for the Start Menu, not much changed between Windows 98 and Windows ME. The “Windows Me” branding on the left of the menu aside, Windows 98 users who were unfortunate enough to upgrade to Windows ME would at least have no trouble understanding and navigating the Start Menu.

While plagued with bugs and stability issues, Windows ME introduced important new features such as Windows Movie Maker, System Restore [33], and Automatic Updates. Several major issues, some of which were intentional omissions by Microsoft such as the lack of real mode DOS, advanced Windows Explorer commands, and hard limits on system RAM, greatly limited the appeal of Windows ME, and the operating system was quickly pulled once Windows XP hit the market just over a year later.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows xp start menu desktop [34]

Windows XP

Codename: Whistler
General Availability: October 25, 2001

Arguably one of the most successful operating systems of all time, Windows XP was installed on well over a billion [35] PCs and devices at its peak, and is still in use on millions of PCs [36] nearly 14 years after its initial release, a fact that concerns [37] both Microsoft and security experts now that Microsoft is no longer supporting [38] the operating system.

So what made Windows XP so popular? The operating system retained the familiar basic layout of its predecessors, complete with Start Button, taskbar, user desktop, and Windows Explorer, but added a host of new features beneath a refreshed design. New graphics options allowed Windows itself to take advantage of visual effects like drop shadows and subpixel rendering [39], while technical improvements brought better support for advanced 3D gaming, Wi-Fi networking, high-speed USB, and fast home Internet connections provided by cable and DSL modems. A 2002 update to Windows XP also saw the release of Windows Media Center, the live TV and DVD playback and management suite that enjoyed a cult following [40] but has unfortunately been discontinued [41] completely with Windows 10.

As Windows XP was marketed to businesses in addition to consumers, productivity and management features were also introduced or improved, including Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop support, file encryption, and fast user switching.

The Windows XP Start Menu also saw a significant facelift. Now wider and more colorful, the Windows XP Start Menu was split down the middle into two categories: programs on the left (with frequently accessed programs available at the top level) and user folders and system settings on the right. New folders were added by default specifically for user media like pictures and music, and common configuration options, such as network and printer settings, were also given top billing. Users who found the new Windows XP Start Menu too colorful or unfamiliar also had the option to use a “classic” Start Menu with all items listed in a single column.

In the end, ass good as people thought Windows XP was, the delayed development cycle and relative failure of Windows XP’s successor, Windows Vista, resulted in hundreds of millions of consumers adopting, and sticking with, Windows XP far longer than Microsoft initially anticipated.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows vista start menu desktop [42]

Windows Vista

Codename: Longhorn
General Availability: January 30, 2007

Arriving five years after the launch of Windows XP, Windows Vista represented the longest span between public releases of Windows in Microsoft’s history. When it finally hit the market, Vista was a shell of what Microsoft had promised in the preceding years, and quickly gained a negative reputation for running poorly on low- and mid-range hardware. With sufficient hardware, and after a few early patches, however, Vista offered a number of interesting new features, including the effects-heavy and translucent-packed Windows Aero UI, an entirely new search and indexing feature with results as you typed, an optional sidebar with live gadgets, built-in anti-spyware protection, new backup features like Shadow Copy [43], and a suite of new consumer-targeted apps for email, calendar, photos, and movies.

On the business side, Vista brought improved fax and scanning support, application and desktop sharing, Windows Image Formatting for easier deployment, and new methods of encryption and protection with BitLocker.

The Windows Vista Start Menu was similar to the default Start Menu in Windows XP, but user and system entries (i.e., those on the right side of the menu) lost their icons in the name of simplicity and space saving. The favorite programs located on the left side of the Start Menu kept their icon display, however. Vista is also notable as the first version of Windows without the literal “Start” button. The button that triggers the Start Menu, still called “Start” in the Windows documentation, is now just a circular Windows logo, although it functions exactly as expected.

One notable new addition to the Vista Start Menu is the live search box. Whereas users with previous versions of Windows needed to launch Windows Search manually in order to search their PC, the new search box leveraged the fast searching tech mentioned above, letting a user simply tap the Windows key on their keyboard (or click the Start Button), and start typing the name of a file, program, or setting they want to access. This method of searching Windows is now the standard in modern versions of operating system.

Overall, Vista was packed with features, but negative public perception [44] of the operating system killed any chance at rapid adoption. Microsoft even ran a notable advertising campaign called the Mojave Experiment [45], in which consumers with a negative impression of Vista were shown a demo of what they were told was Microsoft’s “next major version of Windows.” The consumers generally liked the features in the demo, rating the supposed next generation operating system nearly twice as high as Vista, but were shocked to discover that the demo was actually Vista itself.

Despite these efforts, many critics and reviewers criticized Vista for being too bloated [46], too slow [47], too expensive [44], and too buggy [48], particularly when it came to support for legacy software. Even features that worked as intended, such as the new User Account Control (UAC) were lambasted for being too intrusive [49]. While a relative failure compared to its predecessors, Vista is still notable for being the launching point of many of the Windows features that defined its successors, and that are still in use today.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows 7 start menu desktop [50]

Windows 7

Codename: Vienna (originally Blackcomb)
General Availability: October 22, 2009

To-date, Windows 7 is second in popularity only to Windows XP. The operating system represented a major refinement of the new features introduced in Vista, but with a focus on performance and stability. Significantly faster overall, Windows 7 also sought to fix the compatibility issues that plagued Vista via improved compatibility modes and even the inclusion of a completely virtualized copy of Windows XP for running legacy applications. Window and application management was improved thanks to better organization of taskbar items, live previews of minimized programs, and new gestures such as “Aero Shake [51]” and “Aero Snap [52].”

Users were free to customize their desktop with slide-show based themes, desktop gadgets that were no longer confined to the sidebar, and window color and opacity options. When it came to file and data management, users could create and manage “Libraries,” which were virtual folders that aggregated user-defined content from multiple locations, and then easily set up home network sharing via HomeGroup [53].

Under the hood technical improvements included built-in support for a variety of popular video and audio codecs, dynamic firewall profiles, virtual hard disks, and support for then-emerging technologies like solid state drives and biometric authentication.

The Windows 7 Start Menu, too, was tweaked from both a performance and design perspective. The layout and function of the Windows 7 Start Menu was virtually identical to that found in Vista, but in keeping with the rest of the operating system, the Start Menu took on the cleaner overall appearance of the rest of Windows 7, with slightly faster searches and menus.

Windows 7 ran better on most hardware than did Windows Vista, supported virtually all of the latest consumer technologies, and still maintained the familiar “traditional” Windows Start Menu and desktop-based interface, all of which combined to make it the most popular version of Windows currently in use, with just over 60 percent [36] of the worldwide operating system marketshare as of the release of Windows 10.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]windows 8.1 start screen [54]

Windows 8.1

Codename: Blue
General Availability: October 17, 2013

Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 don’t really belong in this list, as they don’t have a Windows Start Menu, but considering the inclusion of live tiles in the Windows 10 Start Menu, we thought it appropriate to briefly cover the concept and its origin.

Although Windows 8.1 brought a lot of improvements to the initial Windows 8 launch in 2012, the drastic departure in interface was too much for many users, with millions of Microsoft customers, particularly businesses, balking at the opportunity to upgrade from Windows XP or Windows 7. Despite the criticism of its touch-focused user interface, Windows 8.1 proved to be a relatively fast, reliable, and secure operating system. The live tile-based Start Screen was an interesting idea, but Microsoft’s requirement that users access universal apps in full screen mode didn’t sit well with productivity-focused users accustomed to multitasking on the Windows desktop.

Live tiles received another chance, however, with the new Windows Start Menu in Windows 10, which concludes next.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1
10. Windows 10 [11]
[/one_half_last]

windows 10 start menu desktop [55]

Windows 10

Codename: Threshold
General Availability: July 29, 2015

Following months of lackluster reviews and customer complaints over the significant UI departure in Windows 8, Microsoft relented and signaled [56] in late 2013 that the Windows Start Menu would return in a future version of Windows. Initially planned as an update to Windows 8.1 (with the press referring to it unofficially as “Windows 8.2”), Microsoft decided in 2014 to make a clean break with Windows 8, both from a technical and branding standpoint. Windows 10 was born, and users started gearing up for the new Start Menu.

Not counting the switch to the Start Screen in Windows 8, the Windows 10 Start Menu is perhaps the largest departure from the original design in the feature’s history. Windows 8-style live tiles have returned, offering users quick access to their universal apps, and as a result the Start Menu is much wider than it’s ever been. Also new in Windows 10 is a user option to resize the Start Menu, or remove live tiles altogether [1], but even in its smallest configuration the Windows 10 Start Menu is quite different from the Windows Start Menus seen in Windows 7, Vista, or XP. Users can pin their most-used apps to the top of the menu (Windows will try to intelligently populate this list if you don’t override it), and common apps like File Explorer and Settings are within easy reach. Users can also browse all of their installed applications via a scrolling list within the confines of the Start Menu.

More interestingly, Windows 10 Search (or Cortana, if available and enabled), blends seamlessly in with the Start Menu. Although these are separate functions within Windows, users can activate the Start Menu with a tap of the Windows key, and instantly switch to a Windows or Cortana Search simply by starting to type. Overall, the Windows 10 Start Menu provides access to virtually everything offered by previous Windows Start Menus — either natively or via search — potentially making it a far less painful transition for longtime Windows users as opposed to Windows 8. Unless you make heavy use of Microsoft’s default Windows 10 apps, the live tiles will seem primarily wasteful and not worth the space they consume by default. For those who don’t elect to remove the tiles from their Start Menu, however, the situation should improve as more universal apps are released via the Windows Store, letting users get the most out of the relatively innovative live tile interface.

[one_half padding=”0 5px 20px 0″]
1. Introduction [22]
2. Windows 95 [3]
3. Windows 98 [4]
4. Windows 2000 Professional [5]
5. Windows ME [6]
[/one_half]

[one_half_last padding=”0 0px 20px 5px”]
6. Windows XP [7]
7. Windows Vista [8]
8. Windows 7 [9]
9. Windows 8.1 [10]
10. Windows 10
[/one_half_last]