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Is your organization ready for Windows 8.1? Part 6, Start Screen Layout Management

As part of the new Windows 8 Interface in large networking environments, Microsoft allowed for some customization of the Lock Screen, the Start Screen background and the Logon background. I’ve described these settings as part of my five must-have Group Policy settings to create an uniform look for your Windows 8 clients.

Windows 8.1 allows for far greater customization of the Start Screen and features a fixed Start Screen Layout.

      

What’s New

In Windows 8.1 you, as an administrator, can provide a customized and fixed Start Screen experience to your customers and colleagues. You can set the tiles, tile sorting and tile groups. This way, every Windows 8.1 end user in your organization can benefit from the same experience from day 1.

It’s important to note the Start Screen Layout will override the user’s Start Screen Layout.

      

Providing a Start Screen Layout

You can deploy a fixed Start Screen Layout to your colleagues in three simple steps:

 

1. Configure the Start Screen for a reference user

First, we need to configure a reference user account on a reference computer (with the typical apps for your organization installed) and change the Start Screen Layout for that user account.

Note:
If your organization is planning to deploy both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 8.1 and/or apps in the networking environment, create separate Start Screen Layouts for each setup.

Perform these steps:

  1. Logon to Windows 8.1 with an account that has administrative privileges on a reference Windows 8.1 installation.
  2. Start the user manager by running lusrmgr.msc
  3. In the left pane, click on users.
  4. In the right pane, click on More actions and select New user….
  5. Provide meaningful values for username and password. Clear the User must change password at next logon option and click Create when done.
  6. Log off as the user with administrative privileges. (by right-clicking on the user accounts avatar in the Start Screen and selecting Log off from the context menu)
  7. Log on with the newly created account.
  8. Open the Start Screen, when not already opened automatically.
  9. Change the size and location of Tiles, according to the needs of your organization.
  10. Optionally, rearrange the Tiles on the Start Screen into logical groups.
  11. Optionally, name the Tile Groups on the Start Screen. When on the Start Screen, press Win + Z and click Customize in the bottom right corner. Optionally, on a touch-enabled device, swipe in from the bottom of the screen and choose Customize.

  

2. Export the customized Start Screen Layout

When the Start Screen Layout is the way you like it, you’re ready to make an export. Log on to a Windows Server in your environment and create a shared folder where you’ll be able to share the Start Screen XML file with your colleagues. 

On the reference Windows 8.1 installation, logged on as the reference user account, perform the following actions:

  1. In the Start Screen, search for PowerShell.
  2. This will open the Windows PowerShell window on the desktop.
  3. Use the Export-StartLayout PowerShell Cmdlet to export the Start Screen layout to a XML-based file. The following PowerShell one-liner is a perfect example:
        
         Export-StartLayout –path C:\users\jos\desktop\Start.xml -as XML
        
  4. This will result in a Start Screen Layout file on the desktop for the reference user, named Start.xml:

    ExportedLayout
  5. Now open the shared folder on the server where you’d want to store the XML file.
  6. Place the Start.xml file in the shared folder.

Tip!
When you want the Start Screen Layout file to be highly available and distributed to branch offices and such, opt to place it in DFS or in the Netlogon folder of your Domain Controllers.

 

3. Deploy the Start Screen Layout Group Policy setting

Open the Group Policy editor on a Domain Controller running Windows Server 2012 R2, or on a domain-joined Windows 8.1 installation equipped with the Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) to create a new Group Policy object (GPO) to copy the Start Screen Layout to the local hard drive of clients and a new Group Policy Object (GPO) to set the Start Screen Layout for your colleagues.

Note:
While you can place the Group Policy preference and Group Policy setting in one Group Policy object, it’s ill advised to do so, because such a Group Policy object containing both settings and preferences might take a long time to get applied.

Create the GPO to copy the XML file

Use Group Policy Management to create a new Group Policy Object (GPO). It is part of the Administrative Tools folder. In Group Policy Management (gpmc.msc), in the left pane, expand the Active Directory forest, then domains, and then your domain name.

Create a new Group Policy Object in Group Policy Management (click for original screenshot)

Right-click Group Policy Objects and select New from the context menu. Give your new Group Policy Object a meaningful name and click OK when done. (I named mine StartScreenLayout Org1 x64 Preference)

Now, expand the Group Policy Objects node and select your newly created Group Policy Object. Right-click it and select Edit… from the context menu. In the left pane of the Group Policy Management Editor window, navigate to Computer Configuration. Expand Preferences, then Windows Settings and then Files.  Right-click Files and select New and then File from the context menu.

Choose update for the Action field, then fill in the Source file(s): as \\server\share\file.xml or \\domain\share\file.xml and Destination file(s): as C:\LocalFolder\file.xml. This will make sure the Start Screen Layout file is available, even when the domain-joined device is outside the network.

Tip!
You can use item-level targeting on the Common tab to target 64-bit and/or 32-bit Windows installations specifically, through the Operating System item and the Edition field.

Click OK when done. Close the Group Policy Management Editor window.

Create a GPO to set the start Screen Layout

Now, use the Group Policy editor to create a second Group Policy Object. (I’ve named this one StartScreenLayout Org1 x64 Preference.) Edit the Group Policy Object and drill down to  User Configuration \ Policies \ Administrative Templates \ Start Menu and Taskbar. Here, double-click the Start Screen Layout group policy setting.

Tip!
while I’ve chosen to apply the Group Policy Preference to the Computer and the Start Screen Layout policy setting as part of the User Configuration, they are both available as part of Computer Configuration and User Configuration and you can combine them in the way best suits your organization.

Enable the Group Policy setting and in the Options pane, fill in the location of the local Start Screen Layout file. Click OK when done.

Target the GPOs

With the Start Screen Layout Group Policy created, we can target Organizational Units (OUs). In Group Policy Management, drill down the structure of Organizational Units in the Active Directory domain.

Right-click an Organizational Unit (OU) with Computer accounts where you’d want the fixed Start Screen Layout to be applied. Select Link an existing GPO… and select the Group Policy Object you created with the preference setting. Click OK when done. This will copy the file to the computers in the Organizational Unit.

Next, right-click an Organizational Unit (OU) with User accounts who you want to have the fixed Start Screen Layout. Select Link an existing GPO… and select the Group Policy Object you created with the policy setting. Click OK when done. This will set the layout for user accounts in the Organizational Unit.

  

Concluding

Windows 8.1 features a new Start Screen Layout Group Policy and accompanying  PowerShell Cmdlets to provide new Windows 8.1 users with a customized Start Screen experience.

Just as the other tips and tricks of this series, the information in this blogpost is only useful, before you roll out Windows 8.1 in your organization: Since the Start Screen Layout overrides Start Screen layouts created by colleagues, you’ll need to configure the layout before they do to avoid nasty surprises.

Related blogposts

Is your organization ready for Windows 8.1- Part 1, Overview   
Is your organization ready for Windows 8.1? Part 2, The best hardware for the job   
Is your organization ready for Windows 8.1? Part 3, Start Button and Boot to Desktop   
Is your organization ready for Windows 8.1? Part 4, Automatic App Updates   
Is your organization ready for Windows 8.1? Part 5, Managing SkyDrive

Further reading

How to specify a Fixed Start Screen Layout for Users in Windows 8.1 
Control the Windows 8.1 Start Screen Layout with Group Policy

Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 5:26 PM by Sander Berkouwer

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