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Let’s face facts: the Windows 8 user experience, and the Start Screen in particular, is woefully misguided. Why would Microsoft replace the classic Start menu that served all of us so well since Windows 95?
Windows 8 Start Menu
A number of independent software vendors (ISVs) have developed Start menu replacements for Windows 8. In my opinion, Stardock’s Start8 is the best of the bunch. In this blog post I’m going to teach you how to deploy Start8 to all of your Windows 8 client computers with minimal cost.
We will be using the software deployment tools that are included in Windows Server 2012 only.
Preparing the installation package ^
NOTE: Enterprise Windows administrators will certainly want to investigate the volume license option. If you do this, be sure to ask Stardock about how software activation can be automated for larger deployments.
As you probably know, Group Policy based software installation requires that your installer files be in the Microsoft Installer .MSI file format. Unfortunately, Start8 arrives as a tiny (4.5 MB) .EXE file. Drat!
Another good reason to use the .MSI format is that we can pass switches to the MSIEXEC utility on the client (to perform a silent installation, for instance).
We can convert the Start8 .EXE to .MSI by using a number of free, third-party tools, such as Veritas WinINSTALL LE. (WinInstall LE is available on the Windows 2000 Server CD, if you can believe it).
In this blog post, we will use the free Exe to Msi Converter Free from QwertyLab. You can use the evaluation version to convert the Start8 executable to Microsoft Installer format.
Converting an EXE to a MSI
As you can see from the previous screenshot, all you need to do with Exe to MSI Converter Free is to browse for the Start8 .EXE file and then click Build MSI. Done and done.
Now that we have our .MSI file, we need to consider how we can configure our Windows Server 2012 domain controllers to distribute and install the software on our users’ Windows 8 computers.
Distributing the Start Menu ^
Out of the box, we can automate the installation of the Start8 software by using either a logon script that calls the MSIEXEC command, or by deploying a Group Policy Object (GPO). Because the GPO option gives us more flexibility, we’ll go that route in this tutorial.
A full discussion of Group Policy-based software installation is outside the scope of this piece; here are some hand-picked links to give you the step-by-step:
- Group Policy Software Installation
- Best Practices for Group Policy Software Installation
- The Guide to Deploying Software Using Group Policy
Specifying the software deployment package
Here are some tips and tricks to ensure a successful software deployment:
- If you assign the installer package, then the software will be installed on target computers automatically. If you publish the package, then it is up to the user to manually launch the installer from Control Panel
- Be sure to scope the software installation GPO properly. You might want to write a Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) filter that targets Windows 8, that’s even better. Example WMI query: select * from Win32_OperatingSystem WHERE Version LIKE "6.2%" and ProductType = "1"
Configuring the Windows 8 Start Menu ^
Stardock helpfully makes an .ADMX Group Policy template file available to its customers. Sadly, the file is not publicly available on their Web site. However, you can send them a request and they’ll send you a copy of the template for free.
Start8 GPO settings
This GPO template enables you to completely customize how Start8 behaves on the client. In the absence of GPO configuration, you need to specify the settings manually. Actually, the configuration options for Start8 are quite intelligently defined.
Stardock Start8 configuration
I hope that you found the material I presented to you in this blog post helpful. Let’s chat more about it! Feel free to leave your thoughts and questions in the comments portion of this post and we’ll get a dialog going; I’m anxious to hear your experiences with Start Screen menu replacement for Windows 8.