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Windows 8 Secrets: Customizing the Start Screen

In the article 8 Is Enough: Living With Microsoft's Developer Preview, I wrote about my daily use of the Windows 8 Developer Preview and how I configured the Windows 8 Start Screen to more accurately reflect the way I use the PC. This type of customization is common with Windows users today, of course, but the ways in which we can configure things to our liking is changing yet again in Windows 8.

Consider how you might customize Windows with previous versions. Previous to Windows XP, many users would place common-needed shortcuts right on the Windows desktop, and thanks to the hidden but useful Quick Launch toolbar, power users could place such icons right on the taskbar, for even quicker access. (Even more users, I bet, had desktops full of icons and had little idea how they filled up like that.)

Desktop-based shortcuts are fine, but they're often covered up by the application and Explorer windows we use day in and day out. So in Windows XP, the Quick Launch toolbar was automatically enabled so that even beginners could take advantage of this app launching functionality even if the desktop was covered. And the Start Menu was redesigned for the first time since Windows 95 to include the notion of "pinned" shortcuts for the web browser and email application, providing preference treatment to these then-important apps.

In Windows Vista, you could arbitrarily pin application shortcuts to the top of the Start Menu, and if pinned web browser and email shortcuts weren't your thing, you could more easily remove them.

And then in Windows 7, Microsoft totally rejiggered everything and made the taskbar a full-fledged application launcher, melding shortcuts for favorite and running apps together, much like the Mac OS X Dock. This release set the stage for the removal of the Start Menu in Windows 8, though in Windows 7, you can still pin shortcuts to both the Start Menu and the taskbar, your choice.

And then we get to Windows 8, the biggest change of all. Here, the Start Menu is replaced with a new full-screen Start screen which works much like the Windows 7 taskbar but in a more graphical way, with live, dynamic tiles replacing the static icons of the past. The Windows 8 Start screen, today, is still a bit mysterious and still somewhat unfamiliar. But as I noted in that previous article, it can and should be customized to work the way you do. And since my early move to use Windows 8 full-time, even at this early stage, I've come across a few more tips for making this screen more customized.

Making groups

First, I need to correct an error: In 8 Is Enough: Living With Microsoft's Developer Preview, I wrote that you "can't create or modify the [Start screen] tile groups, not yet, since this feature isn't available in the Developer Preview." That's not true, actually. In my defense, I had just started using the Start screen regularly, and was working off of the knowledge that a special Start screen zooming mode, which allows you to easily modify, move, name, rename groups was not working in the Developer Preview. And it's not. But you can, in fact, still make new tile groups even in the Developer Preview.

Here's how.

From the Start screen, you must first select any tile. With a keyboard and mouse-based PC, you do this by clicking and holding. With a touch-based screen, the action is similar but non-discoverable: You tap, hold and then drag slightly down; you'll know you've got it right when a small checkmark appears just above the top right of the selected tile.

Then, simply drag the selected tile to an area between two exists tile groups. (Or off to either side.) This will create a new tile group, with that single tile. Then you can add other tiles to this new group.

A little to the left...

Pinning items to the Start screen

In 8 Is Enough: Living With Microsoft's Developer Preview, I also noted that I had, for the first time, customized the Start screen to include only those tiles I would actually use regularly. This mimics, I think, the way we work today in Windows 7 and other Windows versions, where we customize the taskbar and/or Start Menu in similar ways.

Deleting tiles is easy enough: You just right-click and then chose Unpin. (Or tap, hold, and drag down slightly with multi-touch.) And then you can use the basic drag and drop skills noted above to create the groups you want, and away you go.

Except for one thing. What if you want to add an application tile to the Start screen? Or what happens when you inadvertently delete the Start screen tile for an application you actually want to use regularly? How do you get it back?

If you look around in the Windows desktop, there's no obvious way. You can right-click shortcuts there, but all you'll see are options for pinning (or unpinning) that item to the Start menu or taskbar. (Both methods still work in Windows 8.) So how do you pin an item to the Start screen?

It turns out it's not all that hard, and in retrospect, it should be obvious that this has to happen from somewhere in the Metro-based Start screen itself. And it does. All you have to do is search for the application you want and then you can pin it from there.

Here's how.

Let's say you want to pin Microsoft Word to the Start screen. To do so, navigate to the Start screen and just start typing: word.  (Remember, Start screen search launches automatically when you begin typing while the Start screen is displayed. However, you can also launch search by selecting Search from the Charms menu on a touch-based system.)


As you type, the search screen appears and whittles down the results list. And an entry for Microsoft Word will be available in the search results. Right-click this entry (or, with touch, tap, hold, and slightly drag down) and you'll see two items appear in the command bar at the bottom of the screen. Click (or tap) Pin to pin this item to the Start screen.



This works surprisingly well for most applications. But it doesn't work for everything. You can't pin individual control panels or items like Device Manager to the Start screen; right-clicking them from the search results simply launches them. Many MMC-based interfaces, like the Security Policy Editor (secpol.msc) can't be pinned. And some legacy applications, like the Explorer-based version of Remote Desktop Connection (mstsc.exe), which I mentioned yesterday in 8 Is Enough: Sometimes It's the Little Things, also can't be pinned. I'm not sure why.

Thanks to Chris Moore for the tip about Start screen app pinning.

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