Windows 7 Feature Focus
Start Menu

The Windows 7 Start Menu has been enhanced since Windows XP and Vista and is now easier to use and better looking. Like its predecessor, you access the Start Menu by pressing the Start button, or Orb, which now resembles a rounded Windows flag. It no longer includes the word Start, as did XP: Presumably, most users understand how this button works now. (That said, if you mouse over the Start button, the word Start will appear in a tip window. You know, just in case.)

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Display Improvements

As with the Windows XP and Vista Start Menu, the Windows 7 Start Menu is divided vertically into two halves. On the left half is a list of your most-recently used (MRU) applications. But where Windows XP and Vista would automatically pin the default Web browser and e-mail to the top of this list, Windows 7 no longer does so. That's because Microsoft has moved to a system where the taskbar, instead of the Start Menu, is used to access your most frequently needed applications.

[ Learn about the new Windows 7 taskbar. ]

On the right of the Start Menu, as before, is a list of commonly accessed shell folders and other system locations and tasks.

Secret: Though Windows 7 no longer includes any pinned Start Menu shortcuts, you can still pin shortcuts to your favorite applications into the Start Menu MRU. To do so, select the shortcut you want to pin from the Start Menu and drag it up to the top of the most recently used application list. Or, right-click a shortcut in the Start Menu and choose Pin to Start Menu. To remove a pinned shortcut from this area, right-click it and choose Unpin from Start Menu.

Secret: Windows Vista included an application called the Welcome Center that provided links to commonly-needed post-setup tasks. This application is missing in Windows 7, but has been replaced by the new Getting Started application. Getting Started, by default, can be found at the top of the Start Menu MRU, on the left side.

Start Menu Jump Lists

While the Windows 7 Start Menu works largely like that of its predecessor, there has been one major change: Now, items in the Start Menu (and in the taskbar as well) can optionally have associated Jump Lists, which provide access to documents or tasks that are associated with those items. Jump Lists expose themselves a bit differently in the Start Menu than they do in the taskbar. But the idea is the same: Instead of launching an application and then finding the document, picture, song, or other bit of data you're really looking for, you can now access this information directly, without a lot of mousing around. Jump Lists also help reduce clutter.

Secret: You can think of Jump Lists as mini Start Menus for each item. For example, while the Windows 7 Start Menu is of course global to the entire PC, the Jump List for Microsoft Word is specific to that application.

The Getting Started application provides a good example of Jump List. When you highlight this item in the Start Menu (by mousing over it--you don't have to click on it), the right side of the Start Menu fills up with the contents of its Jump List. As you can see from the image below, the Getting Started Jump List corresponds to the choices that are available in the application itself.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Display Improvements

While not all Start Menu items will have Jump Lists, those that do will display a small black triangle graphic, indicating that that item will expand to display its Jump List when highlighted.

Secret: Jump Lists represent a bit of a navigational challenge for keyboard mavens. If you're used to moving around the Start Menu with the arrow keys, you'll discover that moving right from an item that contains a Jump List will cause that Jump List to open, instead of causing you to navigate to the right side of the Start Menu, as you might expect. In order to move right through the Start Menu with the keyboard, then, you'll need to be vigilant and ensure that you're on an item that does not provide a Jump List. Remember, these items will not display the little black arrow graphic.

Jump Lists vary from application to application. After you've used Paint for a while, for example, that application's Jump List will include recently saved graphics file. Microsoft Word provides a list of recent documents. These lists make a lot of sense, given the purpose of the applications. But some Windows 7 applications provide custom Jump Lists, and Microsoft has opened up the programming interfaces for this so that any application in the future can do so as well.

The Windows Media Player Jump List provides a list of recently accessed media files, of course. But it also has links for Media Player-specific tasks, and is a good example of an application that has explicitly customized its Jump List display.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Display Improvements

Internet Explorer also provides a custom Jump List. Here, you'll see recently accessed web pages, as expected. But the IE Jump List also includes access to IE-specific features, such as InPrivate and New Tab.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Display Improvements

These aren't the only examples of custom Jump Lists in Windows 7, of course. As you gain experience with the system, you'll discover that many applications provide access to unique functionality in this way as well.

Start Menu Search

One of the best features in Windows 7 is its integrated search functionality. Although you might think that this feature is limited only to finding documents and music files, you can actually use it for a variety of things, and depending on where you are in the 7 interface, those searches will be context sensitive. So when you search from the Start Menu's useful Search box, located on the left side of the menu underneath All Programs, you will typically be searching for applications. You can also use this feature, called Start Menu Search, to quickly launch applications, when you know their names. This is especially useful for applications that are infrequently used and thus buried deep in the Start Menu. It's also a boon to touch-typists, since you don't have to take your hands off the keyboard to use it.

Secret: The Search Menu's search feature doesn't just search applications. You can also use it to search documents, pictures, and other files.

Here's how it works. When you open the Start Menu and begin typing, whatever you type is automatically placed in the search box. So let's say you want to run Notepad. You could always click the Start button, expand All Programs, expand Accessories, and then click on the Notepad icon. Or, you could tap the Windows key and just type notepad. As you type, applications that match the text appear in a list. When you see the application you want, use the arrow keys (or mouse cursor) to select it, and then Notepad will start normally.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Display Improvements

Secret: Start Menu Search is even better than this. You don't have to type the entire name of an application. Instead, you can just start typing the first few letters. On most systems, just typing pa, for example, should be enough to display Paint as the first choice in the found programs list. So you could just type pa and then tap Enter to run Paint. Try this shortcut with some favorite applications to see how little typing is actually required.

Secret: It's possible that some users will prefer to use the old Run command, which brings up a small dialog box and maintains a history of previously accessed commands. (I'm looking at you, Luddite.) Good news: Even though the Run command is missing from the default Windows 7 Start Menu, you can turn it on. To do so, right-click the Start Orb, choose Properties, and then click the Customize button. Scroll down the list until you see the Run command option (the list is alphabetical) and then select it. Click OK and then OK again, and you'll see that the Run command is back where it used to be. (On the right side of the Start Menu.) Too much work? The keyboard shortcut Windows Key + R will display a Run dialog on the fly.

Secret: The classic Start Menu found in Windows 2000 and older Windows versions was made optional in Windows XP and Vista and is now gone from Windows 7. If you prefer this old-school interface for some reason--and I recommend against this--you can try the Classic Shell add-on.

There's a lot more to learn about the Windows 7 Start Menu, but this article focuses only on the new and improved features. Fortunately, I've written a whole book about Windows 7, called Windows 7 Secrets.