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.

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For all the hubbub around this new user interface, 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.

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 fairly unexpressive, causing developers to create unique but inconsistent means of notifying users when something has changed. With live tiles, this is no longer an issue, as their large sizes and extensive customizability lets them provide all kinds of information in 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.

You launch an app, application, or other experience by clicking (or otherwise selecting, depending on your input choice) its tile. When you do so, a quick loading animation will signal that the app (or other item) is loading as it fills the screen: The Start screen will never appear onscreen “next” to any other Windows 8 user experience.

To return to the Start screen, type WINKEY, press the Windows key button on your device, or open the Charms and tap the Start flag button. As noted in previous Windows 8 articles, these actions always work 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 numerous accent and background color combinations and several background patterns, which Microsoft calls “backgrounds” for some reason. These options are changing pretty dramatically between the Consumer Preview and the final release of Windows 8, but there are six background patterns to choose from (include a blank one if you don’t like patterns) and,  post-Consumer Preview, 25 accent and background color combinations (you can’t mix and match). These changes are made in PC Settings, under Personalize, Start Screen.

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Post-Consumer Preview, you'll see more options for customizing the Start screen, according to leaked shots

You can also determine which tiles appear on the Start screen and arrange and group tiles as you see fit.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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You can also move and even name groups. To do so, you need to access a hidden Metro feature that the Start screen (and some Metro-style apps) use called semantic zoom. To enable this mode, pinch to zoom with your fingers on a touch screen or, with a mouse, click the tiny semantic zoom button in the lower right corner of the screen.

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When you do, all of the tiles on the Start screen will “zoom in”.

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

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

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To exit semantic zoom, use the stretch gesture (sort of a “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.

Overall, 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 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.