In a previous article, “Make the best of the Windows 8.1 Start/Apps Screen with its new features,” I told you that I’d decided to stop pining away for the Start Menu and take a closer look at what’s available in Windows 8.1. I started by investigation with the Apps view and its new features, such as the new sorting feature, the ability to configure it as the target of the Start button, and the ability to increase the number of icons that it can display. I then showed you how to configure and use the Apps view as a Start Menu replacement. While this works quite well, I carried my experimentation a bit further over the last few days and have found that there are several new enhancements to the Start Screen that you can use to make it look and feel more like the Start Menu. In this article, I’ll show you what I discovered.

Sizing tiles

As you may know, on the Windows 8 Start Screen, there are only two tile sizes: Square tiles, which measure 150×150 pixels, and Wide tiles, which measure 310×150 pixels. Both these sizes are great for fat fingers on a touch screen, but they’re hideously large when directing a fine mouse pointer on a desktop monitor. Fortunately, with Windows 8.1, Microsoft added two additional tile sizes: Large tiles, which measure 310×310, and Small tiles, which measure 70×70. While the Large tiles are also obscene for use with a mouse pointer, I found that the Small tiles are perfect for emulating a Start Menu-like interface on the Start Screen.

To resize a tile, simply right-click on it to display the context menu. Then, select a size option from the Resize menu. As you can imagine, resizing each tile individually is a tedious operation. Fortunately, you can select multiple tiles at one time. To do so, just hold down the [Ctrl] key and select multiple tiles with a left-click. As you do, a check mark will appear in the upper right corner of the tile to indicate that it’s selected. Then, right-click on the last tile, and select Small from the Resize menu (Figure A).

Figure A

You can select multiple tiles and resize them all at the same time.

Grouping tiles

While the ability to group tiles is not new to Windows 8.1, having the Small tiles allows you to more easily construct really usable groups. To do so, drag tiles around on the screen to create logical arrangements. For example, you might create a group of graphics applications, a group of utilities, or a group of applications that you use most often. As you drag tiles around, you’ll notice that if you drag a tile away from the main grouping, a separator appears on the screen. If you want to create logical groups of tiles, just drag those tiles to the other side of the separator. You can have as many groups as you want, because the separators will continue to appear as you drag the tile away from an existing group.

Again, dragging each tile individually can be a tedious operation. To drag more than one tile at a time, just hold down the [Ctrl] key and select multiple tiles with a left-click. Then click on the last tile and drag all the tiles you selected at one time.

As you are creating groups of tiles, you can make the groups as wide as you want and the full length of the screen. However, when creating my groups, I found that 4 tiles wide was a good width for a group, and I didn’t worry about trying to fill the full length of the screen. So, I just went with a logical grouping scheme. The first two groups on my Start Screen are applications that I use frequently and utilities (Figure B).

Figure B

I found that 4 tiles wide was a good width for a logical group.

Naming groups

Naming groups isn’t new to Windows 8.1 either, but it is a whole lot easier than it was in Windows 8. To name your groups, just right click anywhere on the Start Screen and select Name group on the pop-up. When you do, you’ll see a text bar appear over your groups (Figure C). Just click the bar and name the group based on your logical grouping scheme.

Figure C

Naming groups in Windows 8.1 is a whole lot easier than it was in Windows 8.

Moving groups

Having the ability to move groups was around in Windows 8, but it does provide a tremendous amount of flexibility for a Start Menu-like interface on the Start Screen. For example, on the far left of my Start Screen is a group titled Graphics that contains applications that I don’t use as frequently as the applications in the other groups. So, having that group on the far right of the Start Screen is just fine. However, when I’m working on tasks where I regularly use the applications in the Graphics group, I prefer to have that group on the left side of the screen where I can get to the applications quicker. As such, I’ll just use the Semantic Zoom feature to minimize the Start Screen groups and then drag the Graphics group to the left (Figure D). To access the Semantic Zoom feature, just click the minimize button that appears in the lower right corner of the screen.

Figure D

Moving groups on the fly as needs change is a nice feature.

When I’m finished with the Graphics group, I just move it back to the right, and the group containing the frequently used applications returns to its prominent position on the right side of the screen.

Changing tile labels and tile icons

As you can see, when you switch to the Small tiles, you lose the text labels. Personally, I prefer icons and tiles without the clutter of text labels. Besides, once you associate and get used to clicking an icon/tile, you really don’t need a text label. However, you’ll discover that the Small tiles have a pop-up text label that appears when you hover over a tile momentarily (Figure E).

Figure E

Every Small tile has a pop-up text label.

Now, if you’d like to alter a label associated with any desktop application tile or change the icon associated with any desktop application tile, you can do so quite easily. You cannot, however; alter the text label or tile icon for any modern application.

To do so, right-click on a tile and select Open file location from the context menu (Figure F).

Figure F

To change a label or icon of a tile, select Open file location from the context menu.

When you do, you’ll see the original shortcut in File Explorer (Figure G), and you can simply rename it like you would in previous versions of Windows. Once you do, that new shortcut name will appear as the new pop-up text label associated with that tile.

Figure G

Renaming the shortcut will change the tile’s text label.

If you want to change the icon that appears on the tile, just access the shortcut’s Properties dialog box, select the Change Icon button (Figure H), and choose a new icon — just like you would in previous versions of Windows. Once you do, that new icon will appear on the tile on the Start Screen.

Figure H

Changing the shortcut’s icon will change the tile’s appearance.

What’s your take?

After making these changes to the Start Screen, I’ve definitely found it to be a useful place to launch my applications. What do you think about this technique? Will you use it to make your Start Screen more like the old Start Menu? Share your opinions in the discussion thread below.