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The Metro hater's guide to customizing Windows 8 Consumer Preview

If your daily work involves mostly Windows desktop apps, the default arrangement of icons isn't exactly conducive to productivity. The solution: Clear away the clutter and build a cleaner, more personal Start screen.

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Topic: Windows
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1 of 19 Ed Bott/ZDNet

The default arrangement of icons on the Start screen in the Windows 8 Customer Preview (top) is messy. It's a great way to encourage you to use the new Metro style preview apps, but it's not conducive to productivity if your daily work involves mostly Windows desktop apps.

The solution is to clear away the clutter and build a cleaner, more personal Start screen, like the one shown at the bottom here.

In this gallery, I explain exactly how to customize the Start screen so it becomes a useful gateway to the Windows desktop. I also introduce a handful of keyboard shortcuts that will make switching between the Start screen and the desktop much easier.

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2 of 19 Ed Bott/ZDNet

The first step is to ruthlessly eliminate unwanted tiles from the Start screen.

Right-click each tile you want to remove so that it shows a checkmark in the upper right corder, as I've done here. (If you accidentally select a tile that you want to keep, just right-click again to clear the checkmark.)

When you've selected the fill list, click Unpin from Start in the App bar along the bottom. The selected tiles are removed from the Start screen. The programs themselves remain available for use.

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This is a good time to choose a different background color and pattern for the Start screen.

From the Start screen, press Windows key + I (that's a capital eye, not a lowercase ell) to open the Settings pane on the right. Click More PC settings at the bottom of the pane, then choose Personalize to display this set of options.

Choose a background color from the slider along the bottom and one of the size background patterns from the boxes above it. You don't need to do anything special to save your changes.

Tap the Start key to return to the Start screen.

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When you install a new Windows desktop program, such as Microsoft Office, the installer adds your icons to the right side of the Start screen automatically. If you're setting up a new user account on a system where apps are already installed, you can add icons to Start manually by searching for them.

Tap the Start key to switch to the Start screen, and then begin typing to filter the list of available programs and apps, as shown here.

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Right-click any program in the Search pane to display the app bar shown here. Because these are desktop programs, you have the option to pin them to the Start screen, or to the taskbar, or both. (The options for Metro style programs are more limited.)

Because you're going to spend much of your time in Windows 8 using the desktop, I recommend that you pin your most frequently used programs to the taskbar only. Avoid the temptation to clutter up the Start screen with desktop programs. You'll find it's much easier to simply click the Desktop tile and use your pinned taskbar icon to start or switch to the program you want to use.

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You can customize the Start screen by adding icons that represent files or folders, including shared network drives.

If you keep your working files in a group of common locations, I recommend adding shortcuts to the Start screen so you can open those locations in Windows Explorer and switch to the Windows desktop with one quick click. See the next screen to see the icons I chose to add.

(Oh, and did you notice how different this desktop background looks from the custom background you chose for the Start screen? We'll fix that shortly.)

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I've finished adding shortcuts to the Start screen. Note that each desktop icon appears as a square tile, with a background color that matches the Start screen background. Each tile has a small icon and a label that matches the name of the program or folder.

That group of eight tiles is cluttered and will be much easier to use if the tiles for Office programs and folders are in separate groups. To create a new group, drag a single tile to the right until you see a faint vertical bar, as shown here. Release the icon to create the new group.

Continue dragging tiles to move them into the groups (and the position within each group) that you prefer. The positions you assign here remain fixed. If you add more icons to a group than will fit in the current number of rows, Windows starts a new column at the right.

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Each of these groups contains the right tiles, but there's something missing. To change the order of groups, or to add a name to any group, you need to use a feature called semantic zoom.

You could hold down the Ctrl key and use the mouse wheel to zoom out so you can work with groups. But there's an easier way.

As you move the mouse, Windows displays a small Zoom icon in the lower right corner of the Start screen. If you move the mouse all the way into the lower right corner, you also see the Charms bar, in white, as shown here.

Click that small Zoom icon in the lower right to zoom out. The next screen shows you the zoomed view.

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When you use zoom out, the display of tiles shrinks so that you can see each group and work with it directly.

Click and drag any group to move it left or right. Right-click any group to giove that group a name. The checkmark indicates that a group is selected. Click the Name group button in the App bar at the bottom to open a box where you can enter a name for the group.

In this example, I've already given the middle group a name. When I click the Name button, the Office label will appear above the last group.

When you finish customizing groups, click any empty space on the Start screen to switch out of zoomed mode and back to the regular display of tiles.

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One reason the switch between the desktop and background is so jarring is because the backgrounds are dramatically different.

My solution? Customize the Windows desktop background so it matches the color and pattern of the Start screen. I already created a custom background image. From the desktop, right-click that image and click this menu option to set it as the desktop background.

See the next screen for the result and an explanation of how I created a truly custom background.

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This is the custom desktop background I'm using. If you think it looks a lot like the Start screen background, you're right. It's a copy of the Start screen that I tweaked with an image editor. Here's how:

1. From the Start screen, click the Zoom icon in the lower right corner to zoom out so that your tiles are shown in small groups.

2. Press Windows key + PrtScr to capture an image of the Start screen and save it in the Pictures folder as a PNG file named Screenshot.

3. Open Windows Explorer, navigate to the Pictures library, right-click the Screenshot file you just created, and open it with an image editor. The built-in Paint program will do just fine.

4. Click the Select icon on the Home toolbar and use the mouse to select a solid color block equal in size to the picture of your zoomed tiles, Hold down Ctrl and drag that block over the tiles, so they disappear. Do the same with the user icon in the upper right corner.

5. The word Start appears in the top left of the captured screenshot. You can hide that label with a color to make the background image completely neutral. Or do as I did and use the Text control to replace the Start label with a Desktop label. I used Segoe UI Light, 44 points, to get a nearly perfect match.

After you add the custom image as your desktop background, tap the Start key to switch back to the Start screen. Tap Start again to return to the desktop. The transition is much smoother now, isn't it?

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All of the Metro style App Previews that are included with the Windows 8 Customer Preview are designed as showcases, so you can see how they work.

When you remove their tiles from the Start screen, the apps themselves remain installed, cluttering up your system. The solution? Uninstall the ones you don't need.

On the Start screen, right-click any empty space and click All apps in the App bar. That opens a full list like the one shown here.

The group on the left shows Metro style apps as well as any shortcuts you've added to the Start screen. The group on the right shows Windows desktop programs you've installed, as well as Windows Accessories and system tools.

To uninstall a Metro style program, right-click its entry and click Uninstall in the App bar. A few rules are worth noting:

  • Metro style apps are stored on a per-user basis. If you uninstall an App Preview, it remains available for other user accounts.
  • Some app tiles can't be uninstalled or removed from this screen. In the Windows 8 Customer Preview, this list includes Internet Explorer, Remote Desktop, Windows Defender, and the Store tile.
  • The Mail, Calendar, Messaging, and People apps are part of a single package. If you uninstall one, you will uninstall the entire package. You can't keep the People app and get rid of Calendar.

When you're finished, tap the Start key to return to the Start screen.

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One complaint I hear repeatedly about the new Start screen is that it's too hard to shut down.

The Power button, with its Sleep, Shut Down, and Restart options, is available at bottom of the Settings pane. If you want a one-click option on the Start screen, you can create custom shortcuts that use the built-in Windows Shutdown command. Here's how:

1. Right-click an empty space on the desktop and then click New, Shortcut.

2. In the Create Shortcut dialog box shown here, enter one of the following two commands:

For a quick shutdown, use shutdown /s /t 5

For a quick restart, use shutdown /r /t 5


By default, the Shutdown command waits 30 seconds to execute your command. That's too long, so I end each shortcut with the /t switch followed by the number 5, which changes the timeout to 5 seconds.

3. Click Next to save the command and enter a name for the shortcut: Shut Down or Restart.

On the next screen, I show how to assign a custom icon to the shortcut.

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The custom Shut Down and Restart icons use generic Windows icons. To assign a more descriptive icon to each one, right-click the shortcut and click Properties. Click Change Icon and ignore the error message that tells you the Shutdown command has no custom icons available.

From the list of Standard shell icons, choose this power icon. Click OK to assign the icon, click OK again to close the Properties dialog box, and then right-click to pin the custom shortcut to the Start screen.

You now have custom Shut Down and Restart icons on both the Windows desktop and the Start screen. Drag them to a convenient position and you no longer have to complain about the inconvenience of shutting down in Windows 8.

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A few keyboard shortcuts are worth memorizing. Virtually all of them involve the Windows key, which is available on any standard Windows keyboard.

Tapping the Windows key by itself takes you to the Start screen. Tap again to return to the program you were using previously. If you're working on the desktop, you can tap Start to toggle between the Start screen and the desktop.

To open the Charms menu, use the Windows key + C shortcut. That also displays the current date and time. Click anywhere except on one of the five charms to make the menu disappear.

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For easy access to the Settings pane, memorize the Windows key + I shortcut. (That's a capital eye, not a lowercase ell.)

The Settings link at the top of this pane applies to the program you're using when you press it. If you're at the Windows desktop, the options include the desktop Control Panel, Personalizaiton options (themes, colors, and so on), and System Info.

Use the icons at the bottom of the pane to change the volume or adjust other system settings. The More PC settings link at the bottom of the pane takes you to the simplified Metro style control panel.

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To jump straight to a specific setting, use the Settings option with the new Search. If you press Windows key plus W (think "Windows settings"), you get to this screen, with the correct option already selected.

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The Windows 8 Customer Preview includes a new program switcher that appears along the left side of the screen, you can use the mouse to access it (aim at either corner on the left side, then move the mouse toward the center of the screen.

It's easier, though, to use the Windows key + Tab shortcut. Note that the new program switcher treats the desktop as if it were a single app. It does not show individual desktop programs. The next screen shows you the alternative.

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The Alt + Tab keyboard shortcut has been around forever, and it still works in Windows 8.

When you hold down the Alt key and tap Tab, you cycle between all open programs. Note that the list of running programs shown here includes desktop programs and Metro style programs, without discriminating. Keep holding down Alt and tapping Tab to move between programs. When you reach the one you want to use, release the Alt key to switch.

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