Microsoft has replaced the program launching capabilities of the Start menu and taskbar with a new Start screen in Windows 8, and while this new interface is controversial in certain circles, it offers new ways for you to customize your daily computing experience.

Of course, it’s not fair to refer to the Start screen as just a program launcher. And that’s because it contains large and expressive live tiles, not simple icons. These tiles can provide real-time information such as your unread email, upcoming appointments, or the current weather, and as such, customizing the Start screen is a key way in which you can personalize your PC. With Windows 8, the Start screen isn’t a static display, it’s a dashboard that provides glanceable information that is important to you.

There are numerous ways in which you can customize the Start screen. Some of these customizations require a trip into PC Settings, while others occur directly on the Start screen itself.

Change the Start screen theme

The Start screen utilizes the system-wide Metro theme, which includes two elements: A background pattern, or “tattoo,” which only appears on the Start screen, and a color scheme, which is a combination of a foreground, or accent, color and a background color. You change the theme from PC Settings, Personalize, Start screen.

ss

There are ten background patterns and 25 color schemes available. If you’re not a fan of background patterns—and certainly, some of them can get overly busy and colorful—one of the patterns is blank.

Make Start screen (and Metro) items bigger

The Start screen and other Metro experiences automatically scale according to several factors including screen resolution, screen size, and pixel density. But if you find a large grid of tiles to be overwhelming on your large-screen display, there’s one option buried in PC Settings you may find useful: If you navigate to Ease of Access, you’ll find an option called Make everything on your screen bigger. Enabling this will dramatically change the display of the Start screen (and will make other Metro experiences bigger as well). For example, here’s how the Start screen looks on my desktop PC:

bigger

Compare this to the “normal” Start screen on my Ultrabook:

normal

Note that this option will be disabled if your PC doesn’t meet certain criteria

Add and remove tiles

One of the most obvious ways in which you can customize the Start screen is to modify which tiles appear there. This will be more important as you install Metro apps and desktop applications as the latter, in particular, can spew multiple unwelcome tiles all over the screen.

To remove (or “unpin”) a single tile, select it—right-click with the mouse, perform a short downward swipe with multi-touch, or use the arrow keys to highlight it and the press SPACE—to display the app bar. Then, choose Unpin from Start from the app bar.

unpin

(Note that removing a tile does not uninstall that app or application. You can uninstall Metro-style apps from this same app bar, but to uninstall desktop applications, you must continue using the legacy Add or remove programs control panel.)

You can also remove multiple tiles in a single action. To do so, you must first multi-select the tiles you wish to remove. To do so, simply select one tile as described above. Then, continue selecting tiles. Each selected tile will display a checkbox in the top right corner to indicate that it’s selected. When you’re done, choose Unpin from Start from the app bar. (The Clear selection button will de-select all selected tiles.)

unpin-multi

There are a few different ways to add (or “pin”) a tile to the Start menu.

First, you can use the All Apps screen, which is accessible from the Start screen: Right-click a blank area of the desktop, type WINKEY + Z, or swipe towards the center of the screen from the top or bottom edge to display the Start screen’s app bar. Then, select All apps to display the All Apps screen.

all-apps

From here, you can navigate to the app or application you wish to pin. Then, select it—as described above—and choose Pin to Start from the app bar that appears.

You can also pin apps (and applications) using Start Search. From the Start screen, simply start typing the name of the app or application you’d like to pin. Then, from the search results screen, select the item you want and choose Pin to Start from the app bar that appears.

search

You can even pin some items to the Start screen from the desktop, including desktop icons (Computer, Recycle Bin, and so on), libraries, Homegroups, and folders. Just right-click the item you wish to pin and choose Pin to Start from the context menu that appears.

desktop

Arrange and group tiles

In addition to adding and removing tiles from the Start screen, you can also arrange the visible tiles so that they appear in the order you prefer, and visually segregate them into groups.

To move a tile, select it with the mouse or, on a multi-touch display, with your finger and drag it to a new location. As you do, the other tiles will rearrange automatically to accommodate the moved tile. Simply release the tile to position it where you want.

move

To create a new tile group, select a tile and move it to the right or left of the current tile group. When you do, a new group bar will appear, indicating that releasing the tile will create a new group.

group

Desktop users: Put the Desktop tile first

If you’re primarily a desktop user, you will want to position the Desktop tile as the first tile on the Start screen. (That is, it should be at the top left.) That way, you can simply tap ENTER from the Start screen to navigate immediately to the desktop.

Name and position tile groups

In addition to creating groups as noted above, you can also further customize groups by optionally giving them names, and by moving the position of an entire group in one action. You do both from a special Start screen display called semantic zoom, which lets you visually zoom in on the entire Start screen.

Semantic zoom is triggered by clicking the semantic zoom button which appears when you move the mouse around on the Start screen (it resembles a small dash, or minus sign). Or, pinch the Start screen on a multi-touch display.

semantic

(To exit semantic zoom, you can use the stretch gesture—what I think of as a “reverse-pinch”. Or, tap the sematic zoom button in the lower right corner of the screen—it now resembles a plus sign—or type ESC.)

To reposition a tile group, simply select it while in semantic zoom and drag the group to a new location.

move-group

To name a group, select the group you wish to name and then select the Name group button in the app bar that appears.

name

The name appears as a heading over the group.

name2

But wait, there’s more

You can also customize individual tiles. However, this process is involved enough that’s it the subject of my next tip.