The Technofile Web site has moved.

Technofile is now located at
Please update your links, bookmarks and Favorites.  

Yes, Windows is Dumb: Start Menu

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Excerpted from
Yes, Windows Is Dumb
Easy Ways to Master Your PC
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt


How to make a real Start Menu

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt

There I was, Mr. Computer Expert, sitting in front of a Windows PC on a weekly TV show about computers, trying to find something in the Start Menu. I had one of those panic attacks usually reserved for weddings and meetings with the IRS.

It wasn't my PC. It belonged to the station. It was the first time I had ever clicked that PC's mouse. I pointed the mouse toward the appropriate place, made a casual click and pulled back in dread. Up popped the biggest Start Menu I had ever seen. A hundred items flew up in the top level of the menu, spilling from one part of the screen to the next. I couldn't have found the program I was looking for even if someone had named it after me.

Fortunately, my co-host had run the program in a pre-show warmup and knew where to find it. She pointed to it and we went on with the show. (As I recall, the program was a game, and the computer beat me. So much for stardom.)

I used that PC many times on that show since then, always avoiding the Start Menu whenever possible. Sometimes, of course, I just had to plod through the minefield. After all, the Start Menu is just what the name indicates—a menu where you find programs you want to start—and you can't avoid it without a lot of work and trickery.

The PC at the station is almost beyond hope. Fixing the Start Menu would take all weekend, and my weekends are already full. Besides, it's not my PC.

But how about yours? Does your Start Menu look like five consecutive pages from the telephone book? If you haven't taken the time to organize your Windows Start Menu, consider doing it the next time you have a free evening. You'll end up saving time you spend at your PC because the programs you need every day will be instantly available, and the programs you only run now and then will be easy to find.

I'll even leave out the technical blather about the way Microsoft designed the Start Menu and all the great hidden features it has. Just follow the simple tips here and you'll be fine.

  1. Keep the top level of the Start Menu clean and simple. Windows already has seven or eight items in the top level—Programs, Documents, Settings and so on—and you can't put more than two or three into that crowd without inducing claustrophobia. We'll get back to this in a minute.
  2. Keep the next level of the Start Menu, the Programs folder, clean and simple, too. Doing this requires nothing more than kindergarten-level organizational skill, so don't get nervous when I suggest that the 300 items in your Programs folder should be reduced to seven. (But that's just what I am going to recommend. Keep reading.)
  3. Remember that you are in charge of your PC. When you install programs, they almost always put themselves in charge by sticking their shortcuts into your Programs folder as new items. Make a rule: No program is allowed to do that. (I'll tell you how to tame those uncouth programs shortly.)

Now for the how-to section. We have to begin with a quick explanation of how you can edit your Start Menu.

The Start Menu is a folder named Start Menu. Oh, how clever those Windows programmers are! (OK, I'll cut out the sarcasm.) It's in the Windows directory. You can get at it that way, by opening the Windows folder and then the Start Menu folder through Windows Explorer, or you can take the easy way out by right-clicking the Start Menu and choosing Open. When you do that, Windows runs Explorer for you and opens the actual Start Menu folder.

With the Start Menu folder open on your screen, you'll see all the items that Windows lets you change in the top level of the menu. You won't see any of the default items —the ones from Documents on down—because those menu choices are special items that Windows won't let you change. (Actually, you can change them if you play footsie with the way Windows works, but we're not going to get into that here.) You'll also see any items you've added. Or items that your kids have added. Or, of course, items that programs have added when you installed them. (Usually, programs put their shortcuts in another level, but you might see them in the top level.)

Ready for the pruning? Here we go.

If you have more shortcut icons than the default ones—Programs, Documents, Settings, Find, Help, Run and Shut Down (and possibly Suspend)—create a folder on your Desktop called Temp (right click on the Desktop and follow the prompt) and move all the extra icons into it. You won't lose them, so go ahead and do it. Make sure you leave the Programs folder alone for now. Now create a folder inside the Start Menu called Quickrun (right click in the Start Menu window and follow the prompt—I promise I'll never say this again). This will be the only non-default item in the top level of the Start Menu. Because it starts with Q, you can open it by pressing Q once the Start Menu pops open. (If you name it something that starts with, say, an F, maybe Fastrun, Windows won't automatically open it because it will see another item, Find, that begins with the same letter. So if you insist on using a name other than Quickrun, make sure it does not start with the letters D, F, H, N, P, R or U. They're all accounted for already.)

The Quickrun folder is where you'll put shortcuts for the seven programs you run most often. Why seven? Because menus get hard to follow if they have more than seven entries. (Trust me; I've done my own study on this and I've read what others have come up with, and seven seems to be the magic number.)

But before we move out of the top level, make another folder in the Start Menu and call it Easy Folders. (If you want to use another name, follow the advice I just gave about which letters to avoid.) Easy Folders is where you'll put shortcuts for the seven folders you access most often. (Starting to see the logic here? Good.)

Now create shortcuts for three of the folders in the Start Menu—Programs, Quickrun and Easy Folders—and put them on your Desktop. (Right click, drag to the Desktop and follow … sorry, I almost forgot my promise.) They're just temporary, to make it easy to add items to those folders. Remember to delete those three shortcuts when you're through.

We haven't dealt with the zillion items in the Programs folder yet, and that's OK. If you organize the two new folders you've just created before you get to the Programs folder, you'll be able to see the pattern you'll need to follow when you finally tackle the big guy. Here's the idea: Find the seven programs you use most often and create shortcuts for each one. Drag the shortcuts into the Quickrun folder. (Drop them right on the Quickrun shortcut you've put on your Desktop.) Don't worry about the names they have; you're going to rename them in the next step anyway.

With the seven new shortcuts in the Quickrun folder, decide which one you use the most. Then rename it, following the advice I'm about to give. (Click the icon and press F2 to start the renaming process.) The name should start with the number 1 and be followed by a period, like this: 1. Microsoft Word. Then decide which is the second most-often-used program and rename it, using the number 2, like this: 2. Eudora. Do the same for the other five. When you're through, you'll have a numbered menu.

Now create shortcuts for the folders you use most often and drag them into the Easy Folders folder. (Don't forget to use the shortcut to Easy Folders on your Desktop.) Rename them using the same kind of numbering scheme. (Suggested folders: My Documents, Windows, the root folder called C:, the Favorites folder inside the Windows folder and any other folders you find yourself digging into often.)

Now open the Start Menu to see how things are going. You'll see Easy Folders and Quickrun listed above the others that Windows put there. Press E and the contents of Easy Folders will cascade off to the right. You'll see each item in sequence, 1 through 7. Pay attention to what I am going to say next. Pressing the number key for an item will automatically open it. Try it. Nice little trick, right? Of course, the same technique works in the Quickrun folder, too.

Before we move on to the task of cleaning the Programs folder, take a minute to extend the logic of the way the Start Menu works. Close the Start Menu and do this: Press Ctrl-Esc, press Q, then press 1. The program numbered 1 will run. You didn't have to touch your mouse. (If your keyboard has a Windows key, you can press it instead of Ctrl-Esc.) This is the magic of the Start Menu. Sure, you'll probably always click it with your mouse when you're just browsing, but using the mouse to do something that takes only a few keystrokes—when all you want to do is open a folder or launch a program—makes no sense at all. You can't run Windows effectively without using a mouse or another pointing device, but you can easily bypass the mouse to launch items on the Start Menu, especially if they are near the top level—and particularly if they are organized in a numbered list.

And now, the tough part. The Programs folder is a mess, right? Here's how to make sense out of it.

First, look at the pattern you see in your Programs folder. You'll see two kinds of icons—distinctive ones that look like a pair of folders, representing program groups, and icons of all descriptions representing programs. (You may have other kinds of icons there, too, but those are the two main categories.) Drag all the program-group icons out of the Programs folder and put them into that Temp folder you made earlier.

Now go into the Temp folder and open each of the program-group icons, one by one. Look for actual programs in each program-group folder. (You'll probably see only one program icon in each of the group folders.) Drag the program icon out of its group folder and put it into the Programs folder, then look one more time at the remaining icons in the group folder. If you see one called Uninstall, select it, press F2 to rename the file, type a descriptive name (such as "Uninstall Eudora"), then drag it onto your Desktop. (Later, you'll create a separate folder called Uninstall for all the once-scattered uninstallation program icons you've collected.)

Do this for all the program-group icons in the Temp folder. When you're done with this part of the cleanup, you'll have a Programs folder full of program icons and a Desktop brimming with Uninstallation icons. Now create a folder inside your Programs folder called Tools. Inside Tools, create a folder called Uninstall. Drag all the uninstallation icons from your Desktop into that folder.

Open the Tools folder again. Create these folders inside Tools:

  • Anti-virus
  • Backup
  • System

Look through all the icons in your Programs folder—including all folders, such as Accessories, that are inside Programs—and move all anti-virus, backup and system-tools icons into their appropriate folders among the three you just created. When you're done, you'll have finished the first big step in the organization of your Programs folder. You'll have an easy-to-find Tools menu (open the Start Menu, press P and then press T) with three sub-folders (press A, B or S to open any of them). Inside those folders you'll have the tools you need for normal maintenance, for system checks, and so on.

Is it all becoming clearer? The only value of a launch menu is to provide a quick and easy way to launch programs or open folders. And that requires an organization within the launch menu that is simple and easy to navigate.

Now the next steps. Go back to the Programs folder and create a folder inside it called Internet. Find all your Internet program icons in the Temp folder and in the main level of the Programs folder and move them into the Internet folder. Then create a folder called Writing inside the Programs folder and move all your word-processor icons there. (Put the WordPad and Notepad icons there, too.) The Writing folder is an ideal place for a shortcut to the My Documents folder and any other folders where you keep word-processor documents.

If your PC has one of the popular "office" suites installed (Microsoft Office, for example), create a folder called Personal and put all the office-suite icons there. (Yes, you can have the icon for your word processor in both the Writing and Personal folders.)

Take a look at those scattered icons you took out of the Programs folder when you began the cleanup. What categories do they fit into?

Do you have a lot of games? If so, create a Games folder inside the Programs folder and put the game icons in it. (Remember to rename them in some sensible way when you do that. A game icon should not need to be named Roland Software's Strike 3 Super Baseball to be easily identified; Strike 3 probably would do as well, wouldn't it?)

Do you have a bunch of Web-page tools? Make a folder called Web Tools and move those icons into it. Likewise, create a folder called Video if you have more than one AVI and MPEG player (or if you have the amazing Real encoder that turns AVI files into minis without a loss in quality).

You're getting the message, right? Make sense out of that Start Menu. Make it navigable from the keyboard. Put your icons where you can easily find them. And rename, rename, rename. (One of my peeves is a Windows PC that displays the user's complete ignorance of the F2 key. Don't disappoint me.)

A final tip. If you're like me, you have a lot of program icons for stuff you may never need—items you downloaded and thought were cute, or programs you ran once and decided you might run again, someday. Don't clutter up your Start Menu with such dreck. Put those icons somewhere else. Create a folder in one of the main folders of your hard drive—in the Program Files folder, maybe—called Other, and stick all those icons in that new folder. Then make a shortcut to Other and put it in your Start Menu, any place out of the way.

If you're wondering whether I've finally cooked my brain, let me explain: Yes, I said you should take those never-used and seldom-used icons out of the Start Menu. Yes, I told you to put them in a folder and link that folder to the Start Menu through a shortcut. It ain't the same thing. Windows checks every icon in the Start Menu each time the menu is accessed. Having 60 useless icons there just slows things down. Having one useless icon there—the one that points to all those icons you've stashed away—does no harm.

So go ahead. Bring order out of chaos.

Start making sense out of that menu.

 Image courtesy of Adobe Systems Inc.technofile: [Articles] [Home page] [Comments:]