Windows 8 Start screen: In-depth overview and customization of the new UI experience

Win start screen

The Windows 8 Start screen is the new “reimagined” experience in the latest Microsoft’s operating system that replaces the traditional Start menu, and virtually every app, features and settings can be accessed from the new connected dashboard, thanks to its deep integration to Search in the operating system.

After unlocking your user account you’ll be presented with the Windows 8 Start screen. This is an experience that uses the new Microsoft design language, and you’ll see it throughout the Windows product family including: Windows Phone, Windows Server, Xbox, Windows online services, and of course in Windows 8.

Info: How the Start screen was born: Not getting too deep into this talk, Microsoft realized that the traditional Start menu found in Windows 7 only served as an application launcher that was rarely being used, it didn’t provide useful information for the end-user and it didn’t offer much customization. More and more apps were launched from the Taskbar. As such the result is the new Start screen.

Getting to know the Windows 8 Start screen


The new dashboard is a chromeless full-screen canvas filled with new live tiles that represent your Windows 8 apps, traditional desktop applications, pinned folders, links to your favorite websites, and many other sort of items. But most importantly is a minimalistic, beautiful and customizable interface with large empty spaces wrapping your collection of tiles.

This is really different from previous Windows designs (in particular Windows 7) and from other technologies that often overwhelm users with many elements on the screen, because most programmers know how to add new features, but they aren’t really clever creating a beautiful user experience.

With the new Windows 8 interface the content is what’s focus and not the application options or toolbars. In fact, modern apps are full-screen experiences and options will always stay hidden until you invoke them (Windows 8 Key +I or right-clicking on any section of the screen to bring the Settings menu or app commands respectively).

In the Start screen you can pin as many items as you want, even though it might look like you’re limited by the size of the display. One thing you’ll notice is that tiles start to disappear on the right side of the screen. This happens when the Start screen reaches the limit of tiles that it can display, but it also indicates that you can scroll to the right to unveil or add more items. However the number of rows will depend on your screen resolution. For example, by default computers with an screen resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels will see 6 rows of tiles, while 1366 x 768 screen will only see 4 rows of tiles. — There is a way around this limitation, but it requires some technical knowledge.

Also it’s important to note that live tiles are far more capable than icons in the taskbar, desktop, and Start menu previously used in Windows 7. Because they create a unique experience with updated information when a change is detected, and their large size makes it possible to display different kind of data.

Win8 live tiles

The Windows 8 Start screen was designed to create an always connected hub that can keep you up-to-date with people, apps, tasks, and online content more important to you. The interface isn’t difficult to navigate and offers you with basic options to get you where you to need go. It’s the place that Microsoft hopes you’ll spend most of your time. From this experience you can glance continuously updated information for each application in its corresponding tile. For example, the Weather app shows weather information about your city, Calendar shows upcoming appointments and birthdays, and Mail can show the number of unread messages. The data provided by the Start screen helps you to be informed without opening the app, something that Microsoft calls “glance and go”.

Of course, clicking or tapping each tile will also function as a launcher for that specific modern app, desktop application (e.g., iTunes, Photoshop, Outlook, etc.), link to a web page, or other items.

To go back to the Start screen, simple hit the WinKey on the keyboard or the Windows button on a touch-enabled device. If you launch a modern app, you can switch back and forth between Start and the app by repeatability hitting the WinKey.

Animation and effects

The Start screen really comes to life with the animation unveiling new status updates, giving you the feeling of top-notch performance; other transitions and effects such as the 3D effect when launching an app, or the sliding transition when accessing the Settings pane (Windows 8 Key +I), just make the whole experience “fast and fluid”.

Start screen customization

Quick Tip: Your Windows 8 Start screen settings can sync between PCs when you’re signed in with your personal Microsoft account. To sync these personal settings, while in PC settings, go to Sync your settings and make sure Personalize (Colors, background, lock screen, and your account picture) under Settings to sync is ON.

The operating system provides a number of settings you can customize in this experience. The most noticeable customization, and the one users are more likely to play with, are the number of combinations of patterns and background colors themes. The final version of Windows 8 offer 20 patterns and 25 different color themes that users can easily use on any combination they like. To change these settings, use the Windows 8 Key +I keyboard shortcut, click or tap the Change PC settings, then from the Personalize, click Start screen tab and choose your new configuration (most changes done from the new Windows 8 UI will be saved automatically and changes will take effect immediately — so no more clicking Apply and the OK.).

Change PC settings Personalize

Basic tasks

In the Start screen experience you can add or remove as many live tiles as you want, you can group them, rearrange and rename those group you created.

Pin to Start: Not every application you install will automatically register a tile to Start; when this case you’ll have to add it manually: To add a new tile, search for the app by right-clicking on an empty space, click All apps from the app commands, locate the app, select it (mouse right-click or short swipe) and select Pin to Start. To unpin, simple select the item once again and click Unpin from Start (you also unpin multiple items at once).

Pin to Start win8

You’re not limited to modern apps, you can also add other items. For example, from the Windows Desktop or from the File Explorer menu, you can right-click an item (e.g., Local Drive, locations, shortcuts, etc.) and select Pin to Start.

Documents Pin to Start

Moving tiles: If tiles start to pile up, you can rearrange tiles by simply dragging them around the screen and placing them wherever you want.

move tile location

Create a Group tile: Grouping is very useful to divide apps by categories (e.g., work, play, music, etc.). To create a new group, grab a tile and move it far enough to the right or left side of the screen until the group semi-transparent divider appears, indicating you can drop the tile and create a new group.

create group start screen win8

Semantic Zoom: Windows 8 also provides a feature called “semantic zoom”, which essentially is a touch-optimized technique for presenting and navigating a large set of items in the Start screen and in modern apps.

semantic zoom win8

It also allows you to rearrange and rename group tiles. To try it, “pinch to zoom” or click the semantic zoom button in the bottom-right corner of the screen [-].

rearrange groups

To leave the zoomed experience, hit ESC, click somewhere outside the tiles, or “pinch to zoom” again.

App commands: There are other common options that you’ll find on the new modern Windows 8 apps, they include: make a live tile Smaller or Larger, Open new window, Run as administrator, Open file location, Turn live tile on (or off) and others — just note that some of these options will only be available when the app is capable of such a feature.

app commands win8 app

There is no question that there are many upset users about Microsoft removing the old Start menu, and for many of them at first it will not be something very intuitive to use, but the Start screen is what Microsoft ambitions for the future of Windows. Soon the Start screen will overtake the Desktop and it will be your main hub to launch, connect, and work. And Yes! There is much room for improvement, such as on multi-monitor setup, you cannot start Windows right into the desktop, and you cannot multi-task inside this experience.

There are also many good things. The new connected dashboard makes it easier to find, launch apps, and get information without entering the app with the tile status updates. Plus, it is by far more customizable than the old Windows 7 Start menu.

SEE ALSO: Windows 8 Start screen: more about All Apps, Search and Desktop

About the author

Mauro Huculak is a Windows How-To Expert who started Pureinfotech in 2010 as an independent online publication. He has also been a Windows Central contributor for nearly a decade. Mauro has over 15 years of experience writing comprehensive guides and creating professional videos about Windows and software, including Android and Linux. Before becoming a technology writer, he was an IT administrator for seven years. In total, Mauro has over 21 years of combined experience in technology. Throughout his career, he achieved different professional certifications from Microsoft (MSCA), Cisco (CCNP), VMware (VCP), and CompTIA (A+ and Network+), and he has been recognized as a Microsoft MVP for many years. You can follow him on X (Twitter), YouTube, LinkedIn and Email him at [email protected].