The death of the Start menu is way up there on my personal list of modern tech tragedies and epic Microsoft blunders. It's almost as egregious as Microsoft Bob, but not as funny. Fortunately, there's no lack of ways to bring it back, from traditional-looking applications such as Classic Shell to bolder reimaginings such as Pokki, a free start menu and app store that shows what Windows 8 might have been.
First and foremost, it's a Start menu. Click the button or tap the Windows key on your keyboard, Pokki displays a list of applications that doesn't take over your entire screen. Start typing, and potential applications instantly pop up, alongside custom Pokki apps and real-time results from the Web (something the traditional Start menu doesn't offer). The default theme is light, and the whole thing feels nice and airy.
Now, about those apps: These used to be the core of the Pokki experience, back when Windows still had a Start button. Now, they're there mainly to offer added value. It feels like Pokki does want you to know about them and install them, but it isn't overly pushy about it (except for prominently featuring them in search results). Being subtle about a new breed of apps is exactly the sort of thing that could have won Windows 8 some points, and Pokki gets it right.
Apps range from games like Cut the Rope and Plants vs. Zombies, to front-ends for Web tools like Google Calendar, Google Reader, and Instagram. They're built in top of instances of the Chromium Web browser, and aren't always customized: The Google Calendar app, for example, shows just what you'd see if you opened a new browser tab and point it at Google Calendar. Pokki's Instagram client, called Instagrille, has a compelling and original interface that works well.
The store is divided into categories such as Art and Design, Games, Photography, and more. You can either browse for interesting finds, or search for an app by name. Searching for common services like YouTube often yields more than one app, so you can pick and choose one that looks right for you. Each app comes with a description, screenshots, and ratings–just what you'd expect from an app store, basically.
Thankfully, neither store nor apps take over your entire screen like Modern apps do. They feel like a different take on Windows, but play with the existing windows far better than Microsoft's Modern interface does.
Pokki's Settings panel is concise and simple, and it doesn't overwhelm you with a multitude of options. You can toggle between a light and dark theme, skip the Windows Start screen when logging in, and even decide whether or not you want the Windows key on your keyboard to open the Pokki menu.
Pokki executed a subtle pivot, shifting from an app store with a launcher to a launcher with an app store. On the whole, I would say it works. I'd love for the search feature to be better, but if you're looking for a richer Start menu replacement than Classic Shell, you should definitely try it out. You might stumble on an amazing Pokki-exclusive app or two in the process.
Note: The Download button on the Product Information page takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.