When users found out that Microsoft’s (MSFT) next version of Windows wouldn’t have a Start button, they panicked. Replaced in Windows 8 by the user interface formerly known as “Metro,” that tiny button is apparently so important to long-time Windows users that they can’t imagine life without it. Rest easy, neophobes — adding the Start button back to Windows 8 is easy and free, and we’ll show you how.

Microsoft spent a lot of time putting together a fresh new user interface for Windows Phone and Windows 8, and we can likely expect some form of the tile-based UI to carry over to Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox as well when it launches next year. Change isn’t always easy though, and lucky for those unhappy with the idea of ditching the Start button, third-party developers have you covered.

Windows developer Ivo Beltchev has created a utility called Classic Shell that works with Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. In Windows Vista and 7, the utility allows users to bring back the classic Windows Start menu layout and customize it in a number of ways. In Windows 8, Classic Shell adds the Start button back to a user’s desktop and provides the same classic customizable Start Menu it does in older Windows builds.

A full list of Classic Shell functions from the developer’s site:

  • Drag and drop to let you organize your applications
  • Options to show Favorites, expand Control Panel, etc
  • Shows recently used documents. The number of documents to display is customizable
  • Translated in 35 languages, including Right-to-left support for Arabic and Hebrew
  • Does not disable the original start menu in Windows. You can access it by Shift+Click on the start button
  • Right-click on an item in the menu to delete, rename, sort, or perform other tasks
  • The search box helps you find your programs without getting in the way of your keyboard shortcuts
  • Available for 32 and 64-bit operating systems
  • Has support for skins, including additional 3rd party skins
  • Fully customizable in both looks and functionality
  • Support for Microsoft’s Active Accessibility
  • Converts the “All Programs” button in the Windows menu into a cascading menu (Vista and Windows 7)
  • Implements a customizable Start button (Windows 7 and 8)
  • And last but not least – it’s FREE!

Classic Shell is available as a free, donation-supported utility that can be downloaded directly from the app’s Sourceforge page — and even if you’re afraid of Microsoft’s new UI, be sure to check out our full preview of Microsoft’s post-post-PC platform, Windows 8.