While Microsoft offered a decent range of Start screen personalization capabilities in the original shipping version of Windows 8, it has dramatically improved things in Windows 8.1, offering a truly customizable experience. In this release, we can now choose between far more background and accent colors, and Start screen tattoos. Including some new animated options. And beyond that, there are some less obvious improvements you should be aware of.

Tattoos and background and accent colors

The most obvious Start screen personalization options are available directly from the Start screen, as before: While viewing the Start screen, access the Settings charm and then choose Personalize.

This works much like it did in Windows 8, but there are far more options. In the grid of Start screen tattoos at the top, you can now choose between 20 backgrounds, which include 6 animated tattoos, 12 static (non-animated) tattoos, a solid blank color (which maps to the background color) and the desktop wallpaper. You can now choose between a very wide range of background and accent colors as well, whereas Windows 8 forced you into a preconfigured and small set of options. Combined, these three options can result in a truly customized Start screen appearance. Here are a few examples in which only the tattoo, background color, and accent color are changed.

Note: If you are going to be moving back and forth between the Start screen and the desktop a lot, using the desktop wallpaper as your Start screen background isn't a bad choice, since it will minimize the "jarring" effect of switching between the two interfaces.

Tiles

In Windows 8.1 Tip: Show More Tiles, I explained that you can increase the tile density on the Start screen on some PCs that meet certain conditions related to resolution and screen size. But that is of course just the beginning of how you can configure the tiles on your Start screen. Some other key options include:

Tile sizes. Most "modern" mobile app tiles can be sized in any of four sizes—Large, Wide, Medium and Small—and you should spend some time thinking about and configuring tiles according to the amount of information they can display. Some apps—Mail, Calendar, Weather, News, and others—really come alive when they're configured to Large. But others, especially desktop applications and those apps that don't offer any necessary live data—are better off sized to Small.

Tile positions and groups. As with Windows 8, you can position and group tiles—and optionally name those groups—though the way you do so has changed. Now, you must enter a special tile customize mode. You do so by activating the Start screen app bar—WINKEY + Y, right-click, or swipe up from the bottom of the screen—and tapping the Customize button. In this mode, you can move tiles, and create and name groups.

Add and remove tiles. As before, you can arbitrarily add and remove tiles to the Start screen in a variety of ways. (You can even add many items to the Start screen from the Desktop environment.) To remove a tile, select it and choose Unpin from Start from the app bar. (You can multi-select tiles to remove many at once.) To add one or more desktop applications or modern apps from the Apps view, select them there and then choose Pin to Start from the app bar. (This is often necessary because Windows 8.1 no longer pins newly installed apps or applications to the Start screen. See Windows 8.1 Tip: Find Your Installed Apps to find out more.)

Display the admin tools. Old-school admins and IT pros will appreciate that you can pin the admin tools to the Start screen by accessing Settings, Tiles from the Start screen.

Enable or disable live data. While a tile's ability to display live data is a key selling point of Windows 8.1 generally and of the Start screen specifically, some may prefer for certain tiles to quiet down. To disable live data display for one or more tiles, select the appropriate tiles and then tap Turn Live Tile Off from the app bar. (Note that some tiles do not support live data anyway.) You can re-enable this functionality in the same way.

Replace the Start screen

Desktop users may wish to replace the Start screen with the Apps view, which provides a less dynamic but more complete view of the programs installed on your PC. I discussed this option previously as part of Windows 8.1 Tip: Optimize for the Desktop, but you can make this change in Taskbar and Navigation Properties, Navigation: The option you are looking for is "Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start." (You can further customize this view by configuring it to display programs by category if desired.)

Configure what syncs between PCs

Assuming you've signed in with a Microsoft account, which you should, Windows 8.1 will be configured to automatically sync a wide variety of settings, including some related to the Start screen, so that you can have a consistent experience on each of your PCs. It's worth examining these options, since not all Start screen features are synced by default.

You will find Start screen sync settings in PC Settings, SkyDrive, Sync Settings.

The following options are available.

Sync your settings on this PC. This option must be enabled for any settings to sync to and from the current PC.

Start screen. When enabled, your Start screen tiles and tile layout is synced between your PCs. This option is disabled by default, and if you do enable it, you will notice some interesting side-effects. For example, apps that are not installed on the current PC may display a tile on your Start screen; you tap this tile, the app will install.

Appearance. Enabled by default, this option will sync your Start screen tattoo, background color, and accent color (and other settings unrelated to the Start screen) between your PCs. If you prefer to have a different experience on each PC, you should change this option to Off.