How-to basics: change the Windows 8 start screen

Features David Hayward Feb 17, 2013

Bored with the Windows 8 Start screen and frustrated by the lack of customisation? David Hayward may have a solution

Windows 8 and the new look interface has caused more uproar than can possibly be imagined in computing circles. For some, it’s the worst approach to creating a desktop environment they’ve ever seen or used - totally alien, useless, absolutely no good either as a standard desktop with mouse and keyboard, or even when used on touch-screen device, for which it was intended. For others, though, it represents the future, with clean lines, information tiles that display real-time data and a fluid interface.

The debate still rages and will no doubt continue until well into Windows 9, 10 and 11. Personally, I don’t mind it. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with it now and have created a Start screen that contains all the necessary tiles, information and access to apps that I need on a day-to-day basis. If there’s anything else I need beyond the tiles, then I simply start typing. Easy enough. The one problem I do have, however, is the fact that I think the Start screen looks boring.

Microsoft, in its wisdom, has decided to lock down the Start screen and offered the user a selection of arty-looking backgrounds and colours. These handful of backgrounds are all fine and well, but I want to use my own. I want to see not only my familiar tiles, but also a background of my choosing. After all, it’s my computer!

The Customiser

Thankfully, there are a numerous third-party programs that can help me and other Windows 8 users to create and add their own custom background, or wallpaper, to the Windows 8 Start screen.

Some of these require payment to unlock the full potential, others don’t. Being a person who enjoys a free product, I decided on the Windows 8 Start Screen Customiser by Victor Alberto Gil, a clever software developer from Spain. The program itself is still only a beta, but I tested it on a couple of Windows 8 examples, a 64-bit Windows 8 Pro and 32-bit Windows 8 basic edition and everything worked perfectly well. However, there’s no telling whether it will work on your particular system, so be prepared if things don’t pan out quite as expected.

Installation

To start with, head to goo.gl/V19WG and download the 1MB compressed file. Extract the files within to a location of your choosing and rename the ‘ModernUIStartScreen.ex_’ file so it ends with an ‘EXE’ - ‘ModernUIStartScreen.exe’. With the program renamed to an executable, all you need to do now is simply double-click it; there’s no need to open as administrator or anything.

Get customising

You’ll start with a basic window, displaying the various Start screen colours, on the left and a blank main window on the right. Beneath these windows are options to control the number of rows the Windows 8 Tiles inhabit, the Start screen opacity and Tile opacity. Next to these are the options we’ll have a look at first.

To start, find a picture you want the Start screen to display, download it to your local drive if it’s online and click on the box titled ‘Load Picture’. You picture will now be displayed in the main window together with an expandable frame.

If you now drag the corners of the frame you can fill a good portion of the picture, although the Start screen displays images in a fairly low resolution so don’t expect the entire image to be displayed. Click on the ‘Apply & Save’ button to bring up the Start screen with the new background added. It’s worth noting at this point that you may need to restart Explorer to activate the changes you’ve made. I found I had to do this just once on the 64-bit version of Windows 8, but the rest of the time the changes were applied as soon as I clicked the button.

You may need to tweak the opacity options on the left a little to get the Start screen looking more polished. The choice I decided on was a Start screen opacity level of 255 and tiles opacity set to ‘Off’, which meant moving both the sliders all the way to the right. That way the tiles and the new background screen didn’t interfere with each other so much. It’s personal preference really, so have a play around with the sliders yourself, clicking on the ‘Apply & Save’ button to write the changes to the configuration file.

To finish, if you tick the ‘Run at Startup’ box in the lower right of the screen, then your new Start screen background image will be displayed every time you restart your computer.

There’s more

Basically, that’s it. You should have a new Windows 8 Start screen background, personalised and looking rather nice, depending on your own preferences. But, as you’ve already no doubt noticed, there’s a slight delay when you boot up to your new Start screen, which is because the Userinit boots up first, then the Windows 8 Start Screen Customiser kicks in a few seconds later, after everything else has loaded.

If you want to speed up this process and make the new Start screen background appear at the same time as the default Windows 8 Start screen, then open up the registry (Run > Regedit) and locate the following entry:

KEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon

Look for the REG_SZ entry ‘Userinit’. Double-click the entry and after the comma enter the location to the ModernUIStartScreen.exe file and its corresponding configuration file, with a ‘–hidden’ switch. So if you extracted the executable for the new Start screen customiser to C:\newUI, then your ‘Userinit’ registry entry would look like this:

C:\Windows\system32\userinit.exe,C:\newUI\ModernUIStartScreen.exe –hidden,

This will now kick off the new UI as soon as Windows 8 boots into the Start screen. But be careful when fiddling around inside the Windows registry, because things can go very wrong indeed. I had no problems with this particular entry, but not all Windows 8 installations are created equally so, if possible, test before applying.

Slideshow

If you fancy spicing things up a bit, then rather than having a single image for your Start screen, why not have several screens on display via a nice slideshow? Open the Windows 8 Start Screen Customiser again and click on the ‘Select Pictures’ button, located under the main window. This will open a very basic Explorer-type window, which can be navigated by using the location references at the top of the screen. Find the folder where you’ve stored your images and hold Ctrl while clicking on the images you want to appear on your Start screen. When you’ve made your selection, click on the ‘Save’ button to return back to the main window.

From here, you can now alter the timing by changing the number in the ‘Interval’ box. The default is ten seconds, but this seems a bit quick for my tastes, so a more reasonable 15 seconds seemed better. Unfortunately, the screens flip from one to another, as opposed to gently fading in and out, but this is a free beta so there’s really very little to complain about.