While the new full screen Start experience in Windows 8 remains on of this system’s most controversial features, it is perhaps time to move on from the griping and look more pragmatically at the ways in which we can customize it for our needs. And the many ways in which one can customize this Start screen will help any user achieve a more personalized experience.

In Windows 8, the Start screen is a full-screen replacement for the program launching capabilities of the Windows 7 Start menu and taskbar. But it provides other services as well, including task switching and its support for rich and animated live tiles that can provide at-a-glance updates from apps and, thus, from the information sources—your mail, calendar, social networks, and more—that you care about the most.

Changing the Start screen theme

When you set up Windows 8 the first time, you’re prompted during the Out of Box Experience, to OOBE to “pick a color,” which is really a combination of two colors, an accent (foreground) color and a background color. These color combinations—they come in certain sets, and you’re not allowed to arbitrarily choose different accent and background colors—are used in all Metro experiences, including the Start screen. But they together represent only half of what might be considered the Start screen “theme,” with the other half being a background pattern that appears only on the Start screen.

To change this theme—by selecting a different color combination and/or background pattern, you must visit PC Settings, Personalize, Start screen. (The fastest way to find PC Settings is to type WINKEY + I and then select Change PC settings from the bottom of the Settings pane.)

start-settings

Here, you can see that several patterns (including the last, which is “no pattern”) and color combinations are available. The thumbnail of the Start screen will give you a rough idea of what the changes will look like as you make them.

Note: Start screen theme settings are synced from PC to PC if you’ve signed in with a Microsoft account. If you look at PC Settings, Sync your settings, you’ll see that these (and other settings) are synced as part of the Personalize option.

Customizing tiles

Looking at the stock Start screen, you may notice that what you see here is roughly analogous to the Most Recently Used (MRU) view in the old Start menu or, more appropriately, the Start screen in Windows Phone. That is, the grid of stock tiles you see does not represent every single app (or application) that’s installed on your PC. Instead, it represents some subset of those programs that Microsoft or your PC maker configured. One thing is certain, however: This is almost certainly not the exact collection of tiles you want. Thankfully, you can fully configure what you see here.

Remove tiles

You first step, perhaps, will be to remove those tiles you do not want. This is simple enough: To remove a tile, select it and then choose Unpin from Start from the app bar that appears.

unpin

(Of course, you may not know how to select a live tile. If you simply click or touch the tile, it will launch the underlying app, application, web page, or whatever the tile represents. To select a tile with a mouse, right-click it. To select with touch, drag down on the tile slightly. To select with the keyboard, navigate to the correct tile with the arrow keys and then press SPACE.)

You can also multi-select tiles and then remove (or unpin) them all at once.

multi-select

Note: Not all tile actions are available when you multi-select.

Add tiles

You can add, or pin, new tiles to the Start screen in a variety of ways. The most common are:

All apps. I noted above that the Start screen is only a subset of the full app and application selection on your PC. To see the full list, display the Start screen’s app bar (by right-clicking a blank area of the Start screen, swiping up from the bottom of the screen, or by typing WINKEY + Z) and then select the All apps button. The All apps screen displays all of the apps and applications installed on your PC.

all-apps

To add an app or application to the Start screen, select it—using the same methods that work for tile selection—and then choose Pin to Start. (You can multi-select here as well.) Newly added tiles are placed at the end, or far right, of the Start screen.

Search. If you know exactly what you wish to add, you can also search for specific app or application using Start Search. From the Start screen, simply start typing the name of the app or application you wish to pin. Or, you can bring up App Search by typing WINKEY + Q, or by displaying the Charms and then choosing Search. From the search results screen, simply select the app/application you wish to add and then choose Pin to Start from the app bar.

Desktop. You can also add many items from the desktop environment to the Start menu. For example, you can right-click on many File Explorer items—including folders, libraries, the Recycle Bin, disks, and more—and then choose Pin to Start from the context menu that appears. Likewise, you could convolutedly locate an application executable or shortcut in Explorer and pin that to Start as well, though the Search method listed above is simpler.

Arrange tiles

You can of course arrange tiles on the Start screen using the expected drag and drop method. Tiles will reflow as you move another tile, and you can position them pretty much wherever you want. Note that tiles are “auto flowed” from top to bottom and then from left to right. But as you’ll see below, you can also create and manage tile groups if you’d like to separate some tiles from others.

move-tile

Customize individual tiles

Individual tiles can be customized in various useful ways. These choice will be available in the app bar when you select a tile:

Unpin from Start. This will remove the selected tile(s) from the Start menu, but leave the underlying app or application installed on the PC.

Unpin from taskbar. If the selected tile is also pinned to the taskbar, you will see this option.

Uninstall. This option, available only for tiles that represent Metro-style apps, will uninstall the app from the PC (and, of course, remove the tile from the Start menu.)

tile-options

Smaller/Larger. This button toggles the tile between the two supported tile sizes, Larger (rectangular) and Smaller (square). It is only available for Metro-style apps and the Desktop tile.

Turn live tile off/on. By default, tiles that represent Metro-style apps are “live,” in that they display alert-like information culled from the underlying app. (The Mail app cycles between recent unread emails, for example, while the Calendar app will display an upcoming event.) You may find this effect annoying or, for particular apps, unnecessary. So this option can toggle off the live effect on a tile-by-tile basis. Note that you cannot multi-select tiles and apply this effect, it can only be done one tile at a time.

Clear selection. If you’ve multi-selected tiles, this option will deselect all of them at once.

Customizing tile groups

Start screen tiles can be arranged in groups, so you can collect related tiles—Office applications, perhaps, or games—together and customize the look of the entire screen.

To start a new group, drag a tile (with your mouse or via touch) left or right from the current group. If you drag it far enough, a group separator will temporarily appear, letting you know it’s time to let go of the tile. Then, you can add other tiles to the new group in the same fashion. You could of course also add or remove tiles from whatever groups are already available too.

new-group

You can also use a cool Metro feature called semantic zoom to change the location of each tile group and, optionally, name groups. In semantic zoom view, the Start screen is miniaturized so you can see all of the tiles and groups at once.

semantic

To enable semantic zoom, mouse into the lower right of the screen. A small widget will appear in the corner, resembling a dash (“-“), so click that. With touch, you can use the pinch gesture to enter semantic zoom.

To change the location of a group, simply grab the group with your mouse or via touch and drag it to a new location.

move-group

To name a group, select it and choose Name group from the app bar that appears.