Windows 8: Bypassing the Start screen

After using the Windows Developer Preview (that is, Windows 8 pre-beta) build for a little while, I’m not at all sold on the Start screen as a replacement for the Start menu for keyboard-and-mouse users. I’m not giving up all hope yet, though – I wasn’t overly fond of the Backstage view when I first tried early builds of Office 2010, which similarly replaced what was a simple menu in Office 2007 with a full screen experience, but I’ve since grown to like it. And, of course, development is far from over at this stage.

I’ll be very surprised if I end up using any ‘Metro style’ applications on my desktop or laptop PCs, however. I’m happy to revisit this statement after Windows 8 launches, but the experience does seem much more suited to tablet and phone form factors (and I’d take a traditional PC any day).

There doesn’t seem to be an official way to disable the Start screen, which is not surprising (it would be akin to disabling the ribbon in Office 2007/2010). What is surprising is that it’s actually quite easy to do: just rename shsxs.dll in %windir%System32 and restart (thanks givebackstartmenu): voilà! The highly usable Start menu of Windows 7 returns. It will be interesting to see whether this remains an ‘option’ in future builds. Note that this disables the modern Task Manager, and potentially breaks other functionality, too.

A less radical option is enabling the Group Policy setting ‘Do not show the Start Menu when the user logs in’ (User ConfigurationAdministrative TemplatesStart Menu and Taskbar). This will open the traditional desktop directly after logging in, skipping the Start screen (but leaving it enabled). My initial impression is that this should be the default for non-touch/stylus form factors, but I’ll keep an open mind about that. Unfortunately, this setting isn’t actually working for me (possible PEBKAC). It seems to be connected to a DWORD in the Registry called ‘DontShowStartMenuOnLogin’. Modifying this also has no effect in the Windows Developer Preview.

Windows Theme Fonts

View source on GitHub.

Update: See this post for a sample implementation in WPF.

Screenshot of Task Dialog (Aero)

Have you ever wondered how to access the various font colours and styles found throughout Windows, such as that of the ‘Main Instruction’ text in the Task Dialog shown above?

If you are using WPF, the SystemFonts class might sound promising at first. However, this class only exposes the following: the icon font, caption font, small caption font, menu font, message font and status font. These aren’t very exciting – in fact, they are all simply 9pt Segoe UI in Windows Vista/7 Aero. (Aside: early Windows 8 builds use 11pt Segoe UI Semilight as the caption (and small caption) font.) For those using Win32 directly, the SystemFonts class wraps around the SystemParametersInfo function (specifically with the messages SPI_GETNONCLIENTMETRICS and SPI_GETICONTITLELOGFONT) the GetThemeSysFont function.

MSDN offers some guidance on default fonts and colours in Windows Vista/7: apparently ‘Main Instruction’ text is 12pt #003399 Segoe UI. This table, while helpful, is not comprehensive, and in general it’s not a good idea to hard-code this kind of thing, as themes/visual styles are liable to change.

The keys lie in the Visual Styles APIs, introduced in Windows XP. In particular, the GetThemeFont function and GetThemeColor function (with the TMT_TEXTCOLOR property identifier), both found in UxTheme.dll. We simply need to specify the ‘part and state’ of the control in question (these are defined in Vsstyle.h and Vssym32.h). ‘Main Instruction’ text, for example, is referenced by the TEXT_MAININSTRUCTION part in the TEXTSTYLE class.

Screenshot of Task Dialog (Classic)

Regrettably, visual styles APIs only work when visual styles are enabled (who’d have thought it?). That is to say, we can’t rely on them with classic themes (Windows Classic and the High Contrast themes).

I emailed the very knowledgeable Larry Osterman about this, and he was kind enough to respond:

AeroStyle.xml tells which metrics to ask for which theme parts (for the OS that matches the version of the SDK it’s in), but there’s no theme API support for classic modes.

Basically they get the metric they’re looking for from the AeroStyle.xml file.

AeroStyle.xml is included in the latest versions of the Windows SDK. It contains the same classes and parts and states mentioned earlier in an XML format. The ‘MainInstruction’ part in the ‘TextStyle’ class looks like this, for instance:

Of interest are the ‘ClassicValue’ elements. When visual styles are disabled, it seems that ‘Main Instruction’ text uses the caption font (8pt bold Microsoft Sans Serif, as it happens).

In closing: you can use GetThemeFont and GetThemeColor if visual styles are enabled, but you will need look at AeroStyle.xml and hard-code the classic theme fall-back values.

Office 15: per application border colours?

Winreview.ru’s latest Office 15 screenshots reveal application-specific border colours and drop-shadows. Word gets a dark blue border and shadow, Excel gets a green border and shadow, etc.:

Office 15.0.2703.1000 Borders

Microsoft in fact applied for a patent for per-window glass colourisation in late 2005 (‘Glass appearance window frame colorization’; discovered by Long Zheng in 2007). While there isn’t any glass in the Office 15 windows shown here (despite the DWM being enabled), the idea is similar.

Outlook 15

Office 15 and Windows 8 seem to be moving in similar UI directions – it seems like square corners are in and transparency is out (at least for the ‘Aero Lite’ theme).

Early Windows 8 UI Changes

Some early screenshots of Windows 8 have leaked recently, providing some clues as to what changes we might see in the user interface.

  1. User Account Pictures in the Taskbar

    Two screenshots show a 32×32 px (actually 28×32 px in the second screenshot) user account picture in the taskbar, located between the clock and ‘show desktop’ button:

    Windows 8 Taskbar 1

    Windows 8 Taskbar 2

  2. Updated Language Bar

    Assuming the ‘ENG’ in the second screenshot above refers to ‘English’, an updated language bar may be part of Windows 8. (The three letter language code would mark a change from ISO 639-1 found in previous versions of Windows to ISO 639-2.)

  3. Centred Window Titles

    Rafael Rivera spotted this in Sinofsky’s Windows 8 ARM demo at CES earlier this year. (Photo by Long Zheng.)

    Windows 8 Title

    A new screenshot seems to confirm this:

    Windows 8 Title 2

    Windows has had left-aligned window title text since Windows 95 – in Windows 3.1 and earlier it was centred. Office 2007 and 2010 notably broke that convention, however, using centred text as part of their custom-drawn title bars (make a Microsoft Word window narrow enough and you can see the custom chrome replaced with the OS standard).

  4. Refreshed DWM-less New Theme 

    While the resolution of the screenshot immediately above leaves a lot to be desired, we can still see some clear differences from Aero Basic as it appears in Windows Vista and Windows 7 (update: in fact, this theme might be a DWM-enabled theme). The window border colour is almost flat (there is a very subtle gradient), the window corners appear to be square at the top as opposed to just the bottom, and the ‘X’ on the close button is coloured black, not white (the window appears not to be active). Additionally, it looks like the close button is flush with the window border (as in Aero), in contrast to Aero Basic where a 7 pixel border is drawn above the caption buttons. Finally, the button control seems to have a new theme.