Windows 8.1

When you first begin using Windows 8.1, you are given the option of picking your colors during the initial set up. Once the user’s account boots for the first time, their Start screen will be decked out in those colors. Of course you may want to change them, in fact, you may not want the Start screen to look that way at all.

You can’t get rid of the Start screen (though you can bypass it, as we mentioned in the previous lesson), but you can customize it in virtually unlimited ways, especially if you make your background transparent so the desktop wallpaper can be seen underneath. There are reports that the Start screen will be giving way to a reimagined Start menu, but you’ll have to learn to live with it in its current form for the time being, and that’s exactly what this lesson sets out to do.

Today, we’re going to cover the ways Microsoft lets you personalize and tailor the Start screen to suit your changing tastes. We’ll also cover backgrounds, which come in two flavors: a traditional static design and animated backgrounds that move as you scroll. The Start screen has a number of cool ways to make it come to life and, remember, there’s the aforementioned transparent background option as well.

Then we’ll move on to tiles. While we covered tiles to some extent in the last section, we want to dig in a bit deeper and explain how to better control their appearance and behavior so you’re not overwhelmed by it all. There’s actually a lot going on with Start tiles but we’ll go through each aspect of them step by step so you gain mastery over them in no time.

Finally, we’ll go through how to personalize your Start screen from the PC settings, which actually pack a great deal of customization options in a little space.

Don’t think of this so much as a new subject delving into new territory, rather simply a continuation of the last lesson with more of an emphasis of turning the Start screen into something you ultimately can use and hopefully live with.

Animated Backgrounds and a Splash of Color

We’ll start by talking about all those backgrounds and colors you can apply. Backgrounds can be applied in two styles, there are static backgrounds and animated backgrounds, which move as you scroll. The ability to change your Start screen’s appearance, including its colors, means that you have virtually unlimited combinations!

To begin, open the Settings pane (WIN+I) from the charms while in the Start screen. If you are new to the charms, we suggest you check out yesterday’s lesson.

With the Settings open (make sure you’re in the Start screen), you will see the following options.

We first turn our attention to “Personalize.” The Personalize pane is comprised of three sections, which should be pretty easy to understand. In the screenshot below, we see these backgrounds, some of which are static and some, which are animated. Below the backgrounds are colors and accents.

The following background gives you an idea. This background is animated (though we can’t show you how), so it moves as you scroll horizontally giving the impression of a something like a dragon’s tail. Go ahead and try it yourself, there are several other animated backgrounds to choose from as well. Note, you’ll have to make sure you have enough tiles stretched across the Start screen horizontally to accomplish these scrolling effects.

There’s quite a few other choices and you can easily change them out and see what you like best. Note also, the second-to-last background choice is actually a solid color.

Thus, if you want to simply assign a single color to your background, there’s an option for that as well!

For many new Windows 8.1 users, the switch between the desktop and the Start screen can be a bit disorienting.

I’ll See Your Background and Raise You a Wallpaper

Luckily, when Microsoft released Windows 8.1, they also made it possible to minimize that disorientation by allowing you to set your current desktop wallpaper. This gives your Start screen a transparent look.

So as you can see in the following side-by-side comparison what the effect looks like. This lets users better tie the desktop to the Start screen, making the transition between them less jarring.

We have to admit, this was a good decision by Microsoft and we actually use this option most of the time on our systems.

Color Your World

Don’t forget now that you can also mess about and change your Start screen’s colors and accents giving you nearly unlimited ways to spruce things up and really express yourself. Here in the following screenshot, we set the Start screen’s background in total contrast to give you a clear idea of the difference between colors and accents.

Notice how the background is a rather drab gray while the animated scales are bright orange/red. This hopefully gives you an exact idea as to what to expect from these settings. We urge you to play around and see what you can come up with. We think you’re unlikely to run out of combinations!

Fit to be Tiled

Let’s return to tiles, which we mentioned briefly in Lesson 2. There’s a lot you can do with tiles and it’s important to know what they do, how to customize them, or simply tone things down a bit. Let’s first touch upon how to manipulate them using right-click menus.

When you want to select a tile on the Start screen, you can hold your finger on a tile until the checkmark appears and the options bar shows at the bottom. To select more than one, simply tap each tile you want and they will all have checkmarks.

Using a mouse and keyboard, right-click each tile. To select more than one tile, hold the CTRL key and click each one you want.

The context menu options are applicable to all the tiles you select though whether you can affect all tiles equally depends on each tile’s individual capabilities. For example, you can turn a “live tile off” but in the screenshot above, the “Desktop” is not a live tile so it wouldn’t be affected.

Of note, is the ability to resize tiles to one of four possible sizes: small, medium, wide, and large. In the following screenshot, we see all four sizes represented. Again, if you choose more than one tile when you resize, each tile will default to its largest size. So if a tile can only resize to medium, but you select large for the group, that tile will obviously only expand to medium size while the others that can resize to large will do so.

Finally, to move your tiles around, you can simply click or touch, hold, and drag them about. You can also expand your screen to a wide type of bird’s eye view, from which you can drag entire app groups from one place to another.

To activate this view, pinch two fingers, touch and hold, and spread them apart, or click the small minus (-) sign in the lower-right corner of the Start screen.

Move your app groups about as you see fit and then when you’re done, just click any blank section of the Start screen or hold and pinch your fingers together, and it will revert to normal.

As you can see, you can also name particular app groups such as “Productivity” or “Fun” or anything else you can think up. To do this, either right-click anywhere on the Start screen outside of a tile group.

Or using your touchscreen prowess, swipe upward from the bottom edge and choose “Customize.”

Then you can rename your groups to something appropriate if you, say, have all your productivity apps lumped together or a bunch of games on your Start screen.

These customization options give you virtually unlimited way in terms of how your tiles look, where they are placed, and as we’ll see in the next section, whether they flash and display information.

Turning Off Live Tiles

Live tiles can be great for certain things like showing the weather at a quick glance, or headlines, or sport scores, but they can also be a distraction, even downright bothersome if there are too many live tiles going at once.

Luckily, live tiles are easy to disable and best of all you can do so to each individually meaning that if you actually like the way one tile reports information, you can leave that one on while turning others off. To turn off a live tile, select one and then choose “turn live tile off.”

As you can see in the above screenshot, tiles then revert to a static image making them much less flashy and distracting.

Tiles Options

There are further options that you can use to affect change on the Start screen’s tiles. Reopen the Settings pane and this time choose “tiles.” You will then see three options.

Let’s focus first on the bottom option, “clear personal info from my tiles.” When you click “clear,” any info that the live tile displays, such as e-mails, friend notifications, or other potential personal info, will be wiped from the live tiles and you’ll have nothing but static tiles, for a time.

This doesn’t prevent the live tiles from repopulating with information once they refresh. If you want to completely prevent them from showing personal information, we suggest turning them off, as described in the previous section.

Seeing More (and Fewer) Apps

The other two tile options are relevant to the Apps view. The first one allows you to see more apps in a smaller area. You see the default view below.

Here in the following screenshot, you can see what turning on the option does.

There are clearly more apps compared to the previous apps view, and you can also see that the “administrative tools” are also shown, which note, must be activated from the tiles options shown above.

Pinning and Unpinning Apps to the Start Screen

What you install on your system won’t appear on your Start screen because if everything were to do so, you’d quickly become overwhelmed with tiles. Windows 8.1 instead allows you to be specific and decide yourself what goes on the Start screen. Additionally, with Windows 8.1, update 1, you can now also pin apps to the taskbar as well!

To pin an app or apps, open the Apps view and select the items you want to pin.

Remember, if you want to select multiple items, you first need to press and hold with your finger (on a touchscreen) and then tap each tile you want to select, or right-click and then hold CTRL to then click and select further tiles.

Similarly, if you had chosen to pin the items to the taskbar, they would now appear there.

You can also pin items to the taskbar from the Start screen rather than having to return to the Apps view.

From there, if you want to later unpin something, you simply follow the process.

You can “unpin from the taskbar” function from the taskbar as well.

Customizing Your Lock Screen and Profile Picture

There’s just a few other things we should note before moving on to tomorrow’s lesson. We want to very briefly cover the lock screen and your profile picture, and this is a good as time as any to scratch the surface of the “PC settings” (which we’ll start covering in Lesson 5).

Again, activate the “Settings” charm (WIN+I) and look at the bottom of the pane for the “Change PC settings” option.

You’re then whisked to PC settings where you can administer your device in a wide variety of ways. For our purposes, we want to choose “PC and devices” and then “Lock screen.” Changing the lock screen’s picture is super easy.

Microsoft gives you a number of built-in options (what you see in the screenshot will not match your device) or you can browse for a specific picture, and use that as your lock screen. You can also have the lock screen display a slide show.

Turning on the slide show we see you can use pictures from your device’s Pictures folder, your OneDrive, or you can specify a location. Below are a number of other options to further customize your lock screen’s slide show.

The lock screen also allows apps to display information such as weather, unread e-mail counts, alarms, and other useful stuff.

Finally, Windows 8.1 lets you to use your device’s camera without first having to unlock it. You simply swipe down on the lock screen (swipe up to unlock) and the camera will activate so you can snap away so you don’t miss that one picture in a lifetime because you’re busy unlocking your device!

Note also, that you can have and change your accounts picture. The easiest way to do this is to simply click on your account picture on the Start screen and then select “change account picture.”

This will open the PC settings to “Accounts -> Your Account” where you can select from a picture in a specific location, or create a new one with your device’s camera.

If your user account is a Microsoft account, then your new profile picture and lock screen settings will populate to your other devices, unless you turn syncing off, which we’ll cover in a later lesson.


This concludes today’s lesson, we hope you feel more confident now using the Start screen and personalizing it to better suit your mood and personal tastes. Your homework then, is to do just that, transform your Start screens into your own. We look forward to seeing what you come up with!

In tomorrow’s lesson, we’re going to take you through a thorough exploration of the Windows Store and Windows Store Apps. While the Windows Store may not be a part of your everyday computing experience, you will need to know about it so you can better manage Start screen content, so we’ll get it out of the way before plunging headlong into the PC settings.

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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