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The Start menu is a user interface element used in Microsoft Windows since Windows 95 and in some other operating systems. It provides a central launching point for computer programs and performing other tasks. It has different names in different operating systems and window managers, such as Kickoff Application Launcher in KDE, Dash in GNOME and Unity, and Start screen in Windows 8.

220px-Windows 95 Start menu

Windows 98's start menu

Traditionally, the Start menu provided a customizable nested list of programs for the user to launch, as well as a list of most recently opened documents, a way to find files and get help, and access to the system settings. Later enhancements via Windows Desktop Update included access to special folders like "My Documents" and "Favorites" (browser bookmarks). Windows XP's Start menu was expanded to encompass various My Documents folders (including My Music and My Pictures), and transplanted other items like My Computer and My Network Places from the Windows desktop. Until Windows Vista, the Start menu was constantly expanded across the screen as the user navigated through its cascading sub-menus.

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The Start Menu in Windows 7

In Microsoft Windows systems, the Start menu appears in Windows 9x, Windows NT 4.0 and all subsequent versions in the Windows NT family, as well as Windows CE, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone.

Technically, the start menu is not needed at all, as any programs and files can be opened by navigating to them in the File Explorer interface. However, the start menu provides a much easier way to open programs, even for experienced users. Microsoft uses the start menu more in each version of Windows as a way to shield novice users from the complexities of the operating system. For example, in Windows XP, the root, Program Files and Windows folders are hidden from the user by default, and access to programs is expected to be achieved through the Start Menu.

Ultimately, the start menu is a single point of access to programs, documents and settings, unlike other operating systems which use multiple GUI features to access programs (e.g. a Finder menu, or Program menu), files (e.g. a hard drive or file cabinet icon) and settings (a separate "Configuration" utility or set of utilities).

On Windows operating systems before Windows Vista, the Start Button consists of the word "Start" and the Windows Logo. In Windows Vista, the word "Start" has been replaced by a blue Windows "pearl" logo.

Microsoft renamed the start menu to the start screen in Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.