Feature: Start screen
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.

The Start screen is the face of the Metro environment in Windows 8 and the controversial replacement for the application launching capabilities of the Start menu from previous Windows versions. A full-screen experience, this interface is populated with live tiles representing Metro-style apps, desktop applications, web sites, libraries and folder locations, and other items.

start-screen

Though controversial, the Start screen is fairly simple and provides only a few basic functions. It’s the place where you can organize and configure the live tiles you use or care about the most, view live status information on those tiles, and use them to launch apps, applications, and other experiences. Other functions from the Windows 7 Start menu can be found in the Settings pane and other interfaces in Windows 8.

While I’ll cover live tiles in a future Feature Focus, it’s worth noting that these UI elements are more capable replacements for the icons we previously used via the Start menu, desktop, or, in Windows 7, the taskbar. They overcome a major limitation of icons, which are mostly static and provide unsophisticated ways of notifying users when something has changed. With live tiles, this is no longer an issue, as their large sizes and extensive customizability allows them to  provide all kinds of information in near real time.

This has important ramifications. With the Start screen, you can now create a live dashboard of sorts where your email, calendar, social networking, weather, and other apps are all providing you with ongoing live updates over time. And you can see these updates without ever entering the app in question. Microsoft calls this “glance and go,” and while it is a lot more useful on smaller devices like smartphones and tablets, I suspect many desktop PC users will become quite used to this UI in Windows 8 as well.

Unfortunately, this glance and go functionality is only available to new, Metro-style apps. Desktop applications utilize static, non-sizable tiles that are similar to icons and cannot display live information.

To launch an app, application, or other experience, simply click (or, via multi-touch, tap) its tile. (Yes, it’s also possible to select and trigger a tile via the keyboard, but it’s ponderous and will likely be an uncommon activity.) The app (or other item) will load and replace the Start screen on your display. That’s an interesting side-effect of moving the Start experience to a full-screen interface It will never appear onscreen “next” to any other Windows 8 user experience. (And no, you cannot “snap” the Start screen as you can with other Metro experiences.)

You can return to the Start screen any time immediately after leaving this experience: Tap WINKEY, press the Windows key button on your device, or open the Charms and tap the Start flag icon. This works like a toggle so that you can move back and forth between the Start screen and whatever other experience you used most recently.

You can customize the Start screen in various ways.

The most obvious change you can make is to the Start screen theme, which consists of 25 accent and background color combinations and 20 background patterns, which Microsoft calls “tattoos” for some reason. These changes are made in PC Settings, under Personalize, Start Screen.

pcsettings-start

Some of the combinations are pleasant enough. But some are downright garish.

garish

You can also determine which tiles appear on the Start screen and arrange and group tiles as you see fit. Some common Start screen activities include:

Unpin one or more tiles

To remove a tile, select it (right-click with mouse, short downward swipe with touch, or tap SPACEBAR with a keyboard) and then choose Unpin from Start from the app bar that appears. You can also multi-select tiles and unpin them all in one fell swoop.

unpin

Pin a tile

To add a tile to the Start screen, display the All Apps view (see below) or search for the item you want with Start Search. Then, select it from the list and choose Pin to Start. (Note that you cannot pin items from the Settings or Files pivots in Start Search.)

pin

You can also pin some items from the Windows desktop. Some desktop icons—Recycle Bin, Computer, and so on—can be pinned, as can libraries, the homegroup, or any folder. In each case, just right-click the item in question and select Pin to Start from the pop-up menu that appears.

pin-desktop

Change the location of a tile

To move a tile, select it and then drag it around the screen (with the mouse or your finger). The other tiles will part and layout correctly as you move the tile around.

move

Use tile groups

You can also group tiles. To create a new group, select a tile and move it to the far left or right of its current tile group; once you’ve moved it far enough, a new group bar will appear indicating that dropping it there will create the new group.

new-group

You can also move and even name groups. To do so, you need to access a Metro feature called semantic zoom. To enable this mode, pinch to zoom with your fingers on a touch screen or, with a mouse, click the little semantic zoom button in the lower right corner of the screen. (It resembles a minus sign by default.)

semantic-button

When you do, all of the tiles on the Start screen will appear to “zoom in” so you can see them all at once and arrange groups of tiles.

semantic

To move a group, simply grab it (mouse or touch) and drag it to a new location.

move-group

To name (or rename) a group, select the group while in semantic zoom and select Name Group from the app bar that appears.

name-group

To exit semantic zoom, use the stretch gesture (a sort of “reverse pinch”) with a touch-based screen. Or, just type ESC or click any empty spot on the screen.

(There are other ways to customize live tiles, but I’ll examine those in a future Live Tiles feature focus article.)

Display all apps

While the Start screen is designed to display tiles for favorite Metro-style apps, desktop applications, and other items, you can also access a view called All Apps that shows all of the installed apps and applications on your PC or device. To do so, you must first display the Start screen app bar: Tap WINKEY + Z or right-click anywhere onscreen. Then, select the All Apps button. (It’s the only button on the app bar and appears at the far right.)

app-bar

All Apps is a full-screen experience that utilizes the same grouping as the old Start menu.

all-apps

Final thoughts

In many ways, the Start screen is the poster child for the entire Metro experience. Like Metro itself, the Start screen is a 1.0 product and will no doubt frustrate some users, not just because it’s different but because it’s a bit limited. For example, the Start screen is the only Metro experience that can’t be used side-by-side onscreen with Snap, nor can it be used effectively in a multi-monitor set up. But as a replacement for the application launching capabilities found in previous Windows versions, the Start screen works well enough, and it retains the useful Start Search feature we liked so much from Windows 7. Too, unrelated functions like Shutdown and Settings have been moved from Start to different, if more logical, places in the user interface. It’s not perfect, but I suspect all of the controversy around the Start screen will fade as users get used to it and discover the many ways in which they can customize this experience.