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Friday, April 1, 2011

Taming The Windows 7 Start Menu

Setting up a new computer is a bit of a chore for me (a not altogether disagreeable chore, but a chore nonetheless) because I like things a particular way, and I am not willing to settle easily for a less than perfect (from my viewpoint) setup. I had practiced the art of setting up my Windows XP environment on 3 or 4 computers over the years, so I could now do it in a couple of hours, with my eyes blindfolded!

Unfortunately, it was not quite such smooth sailing with my new Windows 7 computer. It took me a while to wade through the enormously higher number of customization options in Windows 7 to get just the look I wanted for my desktop, my taskbar, my notification tray, my desktop gadgets, etc., etc. And then there was the huge number of options to deal with in setting up my power profile, calibrating the display to my satisfaction, and seemingly a million other tiny details.

I now have a decent understanding of where things are and what options do what in Windows 7. It took a couple of books and several google searches, but things are now clear in my mind, so that setting up my next Windows 7 laptop setup will probably take a lot less time. But, fully a month after I got my laptop, I couldn't seem to get my hands around the Start Menu until this last weekend. I thought I would give others struggling with this monstrosity a hand, based on my experiences in finally getting it under control.

Just like in Windows XP, the Windows 7 Start Menu has a property sheet that can be reached by right-clicking on the Start button and clicking on "Properties". However, just like in Windows XP, this brings up just a small property sheet that allows you to customize the appearance of things that show up when you click on the Start button, before you go into the "All Programs" part of the Start Menu. The property sheet does not help you in any way with what shows up under "All Programs".

My main problem was with the "All Programs" part of the Start Menu. To understand why this was a problem, I have to explain a little bit how I set up my computer. In Windows XP, I always created just a single user with administrator rights on the computer. I used the computer as the administrator all the time, installing programs from this account, and using them from the same account. It was supposed to be bad from a security standpoint, but in Windows XP, limited user accounts were so cumbersome to use that the thought of creating one for myself and using that on a day to day basis never crossed my mind.

Things are supposed to be different starting with Windows Vista and certainly with Windows 7. Users are supposed to create standard accounts for themselves and use an account with administrator privileges only to do administrator-type stuff, such installing programs or changing system settings. UAC (user account control) was a bit of a pain in the neck with Windows Vista (this is pure hearsay since I never owned a computer with that operating system, and hope never to!), but Microsoft learned its lessons from that fiasco, and made it much easier to live with in Windows 7. So far, so good.

I followed the experts' recommendations, and created an administrator account (which I did not bother customizing extensively since I was going to be using it very seldom), and a standard account for my everyday use. The problem was that, every time I wanted to install a program, I would have to provide the installation program administrator access by typing in the administrator password when prompted. I did a few installations this way, but typing in the administrator password repeatedly got a bit tedious, so I decided I would do all my remaining program installations while logged into the administrator account. Seemed like a perfectly logical way to do things as far as I was concerned. After all, it is not as if I was installing programs on a daily basis. I was going to install the programs I needed, pretty much all at once, then log out of the administrator account and start using the computer under my standard account after that.

I did precisely that, and initially, I was quite happy with the results. A few programs specifically asked me whether I would like to make the program accessible to all the users on the computer, and I responded yes. The other programs never asked me anything and I did not give it much thought at that time.

I started using my computer under my standard account, and initially, did not notice anything amiss. But after a while, I started noticing that some programs were not under the "All Programs" in the Start Menu. I was about 90% sure I had installed the programs, but I thought I had perhaps missed a couple. So, I went to the administrator account and reinstalled them. Sometimes, I even found the program already installed under Program Files or Program Files (x86), but I thought the installation had somehow messed up and not created the appropriate Start Menu items. But reinstalling the programs did not seem to help in terms of making the programs accessible using the Start Menu in my standard account.

That was also when I noticed that some of these "missing" programs were, in fact, accessible using the Start Menu of the Administrator account. That was the a-ha moment that got me started down my path of discovery. It turns out that these programs had, without warning or notifying me, made themselves accessible only to the user installing them. You see, in Windows XP, your Start Menu is located under C:\Documents and Settings\USERNAME\Start Menu\Programs or under C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Start Menu\Programs. Since there was only one account on the machine, it did not matter where each program installed its Start Menu shortcuts. If they were installed under either of these locations, they always appeared in the USERNAME's Start Menu.

In my Windows XP machines, just to be sure, I would normally go in occassionally and copy over any items under my user account's Start Menu to the All Users location so that I could go to a single place to customize the look of my Start Menu if I wanted to. I did not want program shortcuts hiding in various places all over the system.

Unfortunately, under Windows 7, many of the programs that I had installed from the administrator account had put their Start Menu shortcuts only in the administrator account's Start Menu, and not in the common Start Menu. Now, things were making a lot more sense. All that was left was to hunt down the different Start Menu's and do what I did in my Windows XP machines: move all the shortcuts to the common Start Menu rather than leaving them on the individual user Start Menu's.

If you are having problems with your Start Menu similar to what I was facing, or if you just want to clean it up anyways by regrouping shortcuts (like I sometimes do), read on. But before you proceed, make sure you have had a good night's sleep since you don't want to mess up when you are working in the bowels of the computer's file system (which is where the Start Menu's are). All of the places I am going to introduce you to now are hidden locations in the file system, and for good reason. You could end up mangling or entirely getting rid of your Start Menu programs if you do something without thinking about it, and Microsoft does not want people mucking around in these areas unless they know what they are doing. Given that caveat, let us get started.

First, you want to be logged into the administrator account on your computer. Most of the folders we are going to be touching need administrator access to make changes to, so it makes sense to be logged in as the administrator (this makes it doubly important to be sure about what you are doing because you are not going to be limited by your user privileges from making drastic or unwanted changes).

Folder Options WindowNext, since these folders are mostly hidden folders, you have to go into Windows Explorer and turn on the ability to view hidden files and folders. To do this, open up Windows Explorer, click on Tools->Folder Options. Move to the View tab, and double-click on "Hidden Files and Folders" if it is not expanded. Once expanded, you will find two options under it: either enable viewing of hidden files and folders or disable such viewing. Choose the option that says "Show hidden files, folders and drives", then hit OK to close out the options screen.

In Windows 7, the common Start Menu that will show up for all users is located under the following folder: C:\Program Data\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs. This place will already be populated with a bunch of folders and shortcuts because most programs that are reasonably well-behaved do realize that they may need to be used by all users of the computer, so they install their Start Menu shortcuts here. Programs that ask you whether you want them accessible to all users also put their shortcuts here if you answered yes.

Each user also has a Start Menu folder. To find an individual user's Start Menu location, you have to navigate to C:\Users\USERNAME\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs. You will probably find a few folders and shortcuts under these locations also. These are the programs that appear only in the Start Menu of the individual users and not in the Start Menu of other users. I found a bunch of folders and program shortcuts in the administrator account's Start Menu location. These were not present in the common Start Menu location, causing the problem where my standard account couldn't access these programs from the Start Menu. I also found a few folders and shortcuts in my standard account's Start Menu location. These were programs I had installed when I was logged in as the standard user. In all cases, I consider these programs to be ill-behaved: they don't warn you about what they are doing even though what they are doing seems a little counterintuitive to me, and they don't provide any option to override their behavior, whether you consider it counterintuitive or not.

In any case, once you have all these locations, it is an easy matter to change things around however you want them. In my case, I just moved all the folders and short cuts from the individual user Start Menu's to the common Start Menu. Problem solved because I am the only user of my computer, and I do want all my program short cuts to be accessible from the Start Menu whether I am logged into my standard account or my administrator account.

If you have other needs, you can change things around. If you have multiple users on the machine, and you want some programs not to be accessible to some users from the Start Menu, you can easily move the shortcuts corresponding to such programs from the common Start Menu to individual user Start Menu's for instance. Or you can move some of the shortcuts of a program to some users' Start Menu's and move some others to a different user's Start Menu (for instance, the link to uninstall a program can be moved to the administrator account's Start Menu, while other links that allow use of the program can be moved to all other users' Start Menu's). You get the idea. Your imagination is the only limit when it comes to reorganizing the Start Menu of any given user.

Things to keep in mind when you do all of this: If the same folder and/or program shortcuts appear on both your user Start Menu as well as the common Start Menu, then when you click on the Start Menu and go to All Programs, you will find that folder and shortcuts duplicated. Windows 7 does not intelligently combine folders or shortcuts that it finds in these two locations. It just picks them up independently and shows them to you.

So, initially, when I just copied over folders and shortcuts from the administrator account's Start Menu to the common Start Menu, the administrator account's Start Menu had a bunch of duplicate folders and shortcuts. You have to move them (not copy them) to the common Start Menu to get rid of the duplicates.

Moreover, if you want a program to be accessible to some users but not other users, then you have to remove the folder and shortcuts corresponding to that program from the common Start Menu (if it is present there), and make copies of it in each user's Start Menu for every user who needs to access the program from the Start Menu.

Essentially, this is how Windows 7 seems to construct your Start Menu program list: take whatever is in the common Start Menu location, and add to it everything that is present in your own Start Menu location. Do not bother throwing out or otherwise processing duplicates, just show the final result, sorted alphabetically. Duplicates occur right next to each other, so they are easy to spot. And if you do spot duplicates, you know what exactly is going on now.

Even more important, remember that all these changes in your Start Menu folders and shortcuts only affects the ability of users to access programs directly from the Start Menu. It does not in any way affect their ability to just go to the installation folder of any program on the computer and run any program they want, whenever they want (unless you put security restrictions on the installation folders or executable files individually). Removing the Start Menu, even entirely, does not in any way affect anybody's ability to run any programs on the computer. The Start Menu is simply a convenient place to collect all the program shortcuts and organize them so that they are easier to access.

Moreover, the Start Menu should only contain shortcuts to the programs, not actual programs, so deleting something from the Start Menu does not uninstall the program or delete the program installation. If some primitive program that you install does not create Start Menu shortcuts at all, navigate to the program's intallation folder, copy the executable (right-click, select Copy), and paste a shortcut in the appropriate Start Menu location (right-click, select Paste Shortcut), and rename the shortcut as appropriate. I am sure you already knew that, didn't you?!

As mentioned earlier, be very careful when you are doing these changes to the various Start Menu's. I accidentally deleted the entire common Start Menu at one point, and ended up with a highly truncated Start Menu that consisted of just the items on my account's Start Menu. I almost froze in sheer panic as I considered how long it would take to recreate the full Start Menu by locating every program I had installed and recreating shortcuts to all of them in a newly created common Start Menu.

Luckily, I remembered to use Recuva to undelete what I had deleted, and saved my sanity! By the way, the "Programs" at the end of the path of the Start Menu's seems to be optional. My common Start Menu is now located at C:\Program Data\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\, and it works perfectly fine! It was not deliberate, I just forgot to create the folder "Programs" when I undeleted all the Start Menu folders and shortcuts. And since it worked, I did not bother creating the "Programs" folder after the fact and moving everything all over again. I was quite satisfied with screwing things up once!

All this trouble results from the fact that Windows has changed its security architecture to allow for the use of non-administrator accounts for everyday use of the computer, but most programs have not adapted to this new state of affairs. There still seem to be several ill-behaved programs out there that install their Start Menu shortcuts only for the user who installed the program. So, if you are like me, and install the program from an administrator account with the intention of using it as a standard user, you are going to find it missing from the standard user's Start Menu. Bad programming, plain and simple.

Ideally, every program should give the installer the option as to where the program's Start Menu shortcuts should be located. One should be able to select with checkmarks, all the users who should be able to access the program from the Start Menu. If "All Users" is checked off, the program should create its Start Menu shortcuts in the common Start Menu. If only a subset of users is selected, it should install a copy of its shortcuts in each selected user's Start Menu location. But until software makers adjust to the new security paradigm in Windows 7, don't look for this feature in the programs you install. Be prepared to clean up after your program installations by making manual changes to the Start Menu folders and shortcuts. At least, now you know exactly where to go and what to do. Good luck!

Oh, and before I forget, let me add one more important point to keep in mind: if you change the location of the Start Menu shortcuts created by a program for any reason (customizing the users to which the program is available, making it available to all users rather than just to the user installing it, etc.), you probably have to manually take care of cleaning up the Start Menu after you uninstall such a program. The program will, in all probability, only know to clean up Start Menu items from where it normally installs them by default, so if you moved those shortcuts around or copied them elsewhere, it is up to you to locate them and get rid of them after the program is taken off your computer!

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