Feature: Live tiles
Availability: Windows 8 (all versions, x86/x64), Windows RT

Note: This article is an updated version of a previous article that has been thoroughly updated for the final, shipping version of Windows 8.

In previous versions of Windows, application shortcuts were represented by icons, which were simple graphical objects that offered almost no form of dynamic or expressive content. With Windows 8, however, Microsoft is adopting the live tile interface pioneered in Windows Phone, offering users glanceable, dynamic information from your favorite apps, even when they’re not running. If you’re not yet familiar with it, the expressive nature of this user interface element may surprise you.

Live tiles—often simply called tiles—live on the Windows 8 Start screen and represent Metro-style apps, desktop applications, web pages, File Explorer folder locations, and other items, including information that is “deep linked” from within specially written Metro-style apps.

In their default form, live tiles are simple opaque rectangles or squares, and they’re arrayed automatically on the Start screen in a grid-like pattern.

tiles-static

Tapping or clicking a live tile will launch the app or other experience that’s represented by the tile, much as this works with traditional icons. If you tap the Mail tile, of course, the Mail app will run.

Live tiles can be configured in various ways on the Start screen. You can add and remove tiles, move them to new positions, create and modify groups of tiles, and more. These options are described in my article Windows 8 Feature Focus: Start Screen.

Tiles are live

What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that these tiles are designed specifically to display real time information dynamically, even when the underlying app isn’t running. To communicate this information, the tile can use various kinds of text in different layouts, images, including full-tile images, and status badges (for displaying the number of unread emails, perhaps, or similar). This is where the name live tiles comes from.

Consider the Calendar app. Once you’ve synchronized this app with one or more accounts, it will begin dynamically displaying upcoming appointments on its tile. Oftentimes, that information is all you need to know, eliminating the need to actually launch the app and view the appointment manually.

cal-tile

The Mail tile works similarly, though it will cycle through up to five of your most recent emails and provide a badge, in the lower right corner, that displays the number of unread emails.

mail-tile

Other app tiles provide beautiful image that fills the entire surface of the tile. For example, the Desktop tile will display the desktop wallpaper, while the Photos tile rotates between various images it finds in your photo sources.

desktop-photos

Resize a tile

You can resize tiles so that they are smaller (square) or larger (rectangular). Square tiles utilize less onscreen real estate and thus usually aren’t as expressive as the larger, rectangular versions. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be dynamic. As you can see here, the tiles for the Weather and Photos apps still provide useful live updates when in the smaller size.

weather-photos

Note: Tile resizing is only possible for those tiles that represent Metro-style apps and games. Other live tiles, such as those for desktop applications and web sites, can only utilize the smaller (square) tile size.

How an app reacts to this sizing is up to the developer, so not all smaller tiles will be this useful. The Mail app tile, for example, doesn’t offer any useful information in smaller size, while the Calendar app just shows the date.

Enable and disable live updating

If you’re not a fan of the live updating, you can turn this functionality off, albeit only on a tile-by-tile basis.

To disable live updating for a single tile, select it (right-click, or tap and drag down slightly) and then choose Turn live tile off from the app bar that appears.

live-tile-off

While there’s no way to disable live updating on all tiles, you can temporarily wipe live data from the tiles in one fell swoop. To do so, display the Start screen and then access Settings (WINKEY + I), then Tiles. In the Tiles pane, select the Clear button.

tiles-options

The next time you access individual apps, or data gets updated (such as new email coming in to the Mail app), those tiles will begin lighting up again.

Deep linking

Apps can offer even further customizing through deep-linking, providing a way for you to add a new tile for the app, from within the app itself, which causes the app to open with a specific experience displayed. For example, the Weather app lets you create new secondary tiles for individual locations. The Mail app lets you create tiles for individual email folders.

mail-tiles

This capability isn’t just for Microsoft. Third parties can add deep-linking to their apps too. For example, the Amazon Kindle apps lets you create new tiles for individual eBooks.

kindle-tiles

This is accomplished in a consistent manner in all apps that support this feature. Simply display the app’s app bar (by right-clicking or accessing the top or bottom edge UI) and choose the Pin to Start button. A flyout lets you name the secondary tile as you see fit.

pin-to-start

Secondary tiles even appear in the All Apps list alongside “real” apps, so that they can be found with Search.

all-apps

Make everything bigger

If your PC’s display meets certain criteria related to resolution and screen size, you can toggle a switch to make all of the Metro-style onscreen elements, including the Start screen live tiles, bigger. To access this option, visit PC Settings, Ease of Access, and then toggle the option titled “Make everything on your screen bigger.” (Despite the name, this option doesn’t not make everything bigger. For example, it does not impact the desktop environment at all.)

When enabled, live tiles (and other Metro UIs, like Charms) are decidedly bigger.

bigger

This option will be grayed out if your display does not support it.

Final thoughts

Once you’ve started using Metro-style apps, you’ll find that the Start screen—originally a blank slate of opaque tiles—suddenly springs to life. And that’s why I’ve been a fan of live tiles in Windows Phone since the beginning, and the improvements that Microsoft has made in Windows 8 make this system better still.

In this new mobile OS, Microsoft is providing for bigger, more expressive tiles. They’re also a lot more colorful, with app makers being able to configure tile colors rather than being bound to a single accent color as in Windows Phone. (That said, you can’t customize the color of live tiles, unfortunately.) The only real concern with live tiles, of course, is that they’re not particularly useful on a desktop PC, and since the Start screen can’t be snapped next to the Windows desktop, few desktop PC users will likely benefit from these useful interfaces. But those with tablets and similar devices will likely grow to appreciate them as much as do Windows Phone users.