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Windows 8 Consumer Preview: Personalizing Windows 8

In the Windows 8 Developer Preview, users were forced to make do with a single Start screen theme and only limited other means by which they could customize the OS to their liking. In the Consumer Preview, however, the ways in which you can make a Windows 8 system fully customized are dramatically increased.


Here is a short guide to some of the key ways in which you can personalize Windows 8.


Use a Microsoft account

Windows 8 offers three basic logon types: Local (workgroup-type) accounts, domain accounts (for managed, Active Directory-based workplaces), and, new to this OS version, Microsoft accounts. The first two types work exactly as they did before in Windows 7 and previous Windows versions.


On your own PCs, you really should be logging into Windows 8 with a Microsoft account, which is sometimes called a Microsoft ID. (Previously, this type of online account was called a Windows Live ID; it's the same online account used for Zune, Xbox, and many other Microsoft services.) Doing so enables a host of PC sync capabilities (some of which are described below) and deep integration with Microsoft and third party online services, similar in fashion to Windows Phone.

If you have already logged on with an old-school local account, or perhaps must use a domain-based account for work purposes, have no fear. You can also link that account to a Microsoft account and achieve the exact same PC sync and services integration capabilities.


Lock screen

The Windows Phone-like lock screen is one of Windows 8's prettier features, and you can customize it in some key ways. These include:


Picture. While Microsoft supplies a handful of decent photos you can use as a lock screen background, you can also customize this to use the picture of your choice.


Lock screen apps. You can also configure which apps are allowed to run in the background and supply lock screen-based notification icons, again in a fashion similar to the same Windows Phone feature. You can configure up to seven apps that do so, and some obvious choices include Mail, Messaging, Calendar, and Weather. One of these apps can be selected to display detailed status information; here, Calendar is the obvious choice since it will display information about your next appointment at a glance.


Both of these customizations are available in PC Settings, the new Metro-style control panel, under Personalize, Lock screen.







While the Developer Preview displayed only a basic handful of notifications, this feature is fully enabled in the Consumer Preview and has been modified to act the way it will in the final version. That is, while full-screen notifications still display in a theme-colored, modal band in the center of the screen, app-based notification toasts now appear in the upper right corner of the screen. (In the Developer Preview, they were in the lower right for some reason.)


You can find a number of notification-based settings in PC Settings, under Notifications. Here, you can globally enable/disable app notifications, determine whether they display at all on the lock screen, and enable/disable notification sounds. You can also work through a list of the installed apps that can provide notifications and determine on an app-by-app basis which will do so.




Note, too, that there is a global notification "mute" switch in the Settings charm which can be useful for a quick toggle when you're working. To use this feature, enable the Charms and tap the Notifications icon (near the bottom of the pane) to enable or disable notifications, globally, on the fly.




PC sync


Thanks to Windows 8's integration with SkyDrive, you can sync a wide range of settings between your Windows 8 PCs and, if desired, replicate many of the customizations you use on each, providing a highly similar computing environment on all of your devices. These settings are also configured in PC Settings, under Sync Your Settings.




You can globally configure whether PC sync is enabled on the PC and then individually configure a number of settings, including Personalize (colors, background, lock screen, account picture), Desktop Personalization (themes, taskbar, and more), Ease of Access, App Settings (Metro-style apps only), Browser Settings (IE 10 only, including history, bookmarks, favorites), Other Windows Settings (Windows Explorer and mouse settings), and Sign-in Info (for some apps, web sites, networks, and HomeGroup).


Those on metered Internet connections (typically through a cellular connection) can also sync settings for that connection between PCs and devices.


Other customizations

Those are arguably the three big areas with new customization possibilities and the ones that all new Windows 8 users should examine. But there are others, of course.


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While you can still logon to Windows 8 with a user name and password, those who are utilizing a Microsoft ID, as noted above, can choose to logon with two new options: Picture Password and PIN. These settings are configured in PC Settings, Users.


A Picture Password utilizes a favorite photograph that will display when it's time to logon. So instead of entering your password, you draw three gestures (circles, straight lines, taps) on top of the picture. Do them correctly, and Windows will enter your actual password behind the scenes and log you into the system.




A PIN works as it does on your smartphone: It's a four-digit numeric passcode that makes logging on much quicker. This type of sign-in is typically most useful on a tablet or other highly portable device where typing in a complex password on the touch keyboard would be ponderous.




Note: These features were both available in the Developer Preview, but I'm guessing many users either weren't aware of them or simply didn't use the Developer Preview.


Touch keyboard


With years of improvements behind it, the touch keyboard in Windows 8 is the best version Microsoft has ever created. It works well in either landscape or portrait mode and is ideally suited for two-hand typing, no matter how you're holding it. Not surprisingly, there are a ton of options related to the touch keyboard that you should examine.


These are all found in PC Settings, General, Touch Keyboard.




Available toggles included Show suggestions as I type, Add a space after I choose a text suggestion, Add a period after I double-tap the spacebar, Capitalize the first letter of each sentence, Use all uppercase letters when I double-tap the Shift key, play key sounds as I type, and Make the standard keyboard layout available. There are also options in there related to automatic spelling and language you should examine.


Tip: When you're actually using the touch keyboard, note the keyboard button in the lower right corner. When you tap this, you'll gain access to different entry layouts, including the normal keyboard, the split keyboard (ideal for thumb typing, especially in portrait mode), the old Tablet PC-style text entry panel, or TIP (for use with a stylus), and a button that will dismiss the keyboard.




The split keyboard layout is shown here: 




Like Windows Phone, Windows 8 offers a system-wide search feature that, in this case, is triggered by the new Search charm. Search is context-sensitive. So if you trigger search from the Start screen, you will search for apps, settings, and files by default, but the Search panel that comes up lets you also search within apps, where the capabilities offer will vary from app to app.




Not surprisingly, perhaps, you can configure some interesting settings related to Search. These settings can be found in PC Settings, Search.



In this interface, you can delete your search history, determine whether saved searches and most recently searched apps are displayed at the top of the Search pane, and then individually configure which apps are searchable. (By default, any app that interoperates with the Search charm is enabled for search.)




In addition to Search, Windows 8 also offers a global Share charm that allows the system's otherwise sandboxed apps to interoperate with each other. These interactions occur through what's called the Share contract, and apps that participate in this contract can be made to be Share senders and/or receivers. Naturally, these capabilities vary from app to app, but it's not hard to imagine a typical scenario: A photo app may be designed to share photos "out" to other apps, while a mail app might be designed to "receive" photo shares so they can be sent as attachments or inline images in an email.


The Share charm is of course accessible from the system Charms and is context sensitive. That means it will display something different for each app or experience, depending on what you're currently doing.


If you try to access Share from PC settings, for example, the Share pane will note that "PC settings can't share." But do so from the Photos app, with one or more photos selected, and you'll see some interesting options, including, in this case, the ability to email that picture (or pictures) using the Mail app.




If you do select Mail, that app's Share interface will appear, allowing you to construct an email message in which the selected photo(s) are embedded. Nice!




Share settings are of course configure in PC Settings, Share. Here, you'll see options related to whether most-frequently-accessed apps are at the top, how many items appear in that list, and which apps can be used to share.




But wait, there's more...


There's so much more, of course, but I've got a book to write and wanted to just share some highlights for now. A complete guide to personalizing Windows 8 will be available in Windows 8 Secrets when that book is published later this year. In the meantime, enjoy playing with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, and if you find any surprising ways in which this system is uniquely customizable, please do let me know.

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