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Customize Windows 8.1 Start Screens by Using Group Policy

Published: October 3, 2013

Updated: October 18, 2013

Applies To: Windows 8.1

In Windows 8.1 Enterprise, you can use a Group Policy Object (GPO) to deploy a customized Start screen layout to users in a domain. No reimaging is required, and the Start screen layout can be updated simply by overwriting the .xml file that contains the layout. This enables you to customize Start screen layouts for different departments or organizations, with minimal management overhead.

This topic describes how to customize the Start screen, export the Start screen layout, and update Group Policy settings to display the new layout when the users sign in. By creating a domain-based GPO with these settings, you can deploy a customized Start screen layout to users in a domain. When a default Start screen layout is imported with this method, the users cannot pin, unpin, or uninstall apps from the Start screen. Users can view and open all apps in the All Apps view, but they cannot pin any apps to the Start screen.

Start screen control is supported in the Windows 8.1 Enterprise operating system, the Windows RT 8.1 operating system with sideloading enabled, and in all editions of the Windows Server 2012 R2 operating system. Start screen control is not supported in the Windows 8.1 Pro operating system and the Windows 8.1 operating system.

In Windows RT 8.1, you can use local policy settings, but only if you turn on the Group Policy Client service. For more information, see Local Group Policy support for Windows RT. If the service is not enabled, you must set the corresponding registry values directly.

The GPO can be configured from any computer on which the necessary ADMX and ADML files (StartMenu.admx and StartMenu.adml) for Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2 are installed. In Group Policy, ADMX files are used to define Registry-based policy settings in the Administrative Templates category. To find out how to create a central store for Administrative Templates files, see article 929841 in the Microsoft Knowledge Base.

Two new features enable Start screen control:

  • The new Export-StartLayout cmdlet in Windows PowerShell exports a description of the current Start screen layout in .xml or .bin file format.

  • In Group Policy, you can use the new Start Screen Layout settings for the Start Menu and Taskbar administrative template to import a Start screen layout from an .xml file when the users sign in.

Two registry values (for either the current user or the computer) are set when the policy settings are enabled. Procedures in this topic set the registry values for the current user, on the following path:

  • HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\Explorer\LockedStartLayout

  • HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\Explorer\StartLayoutFile

This topic describes how to perform the following tasks:

noteNote
To find out how customize the Start screen to include your line-of-business apps when you deploy Windows 8.1, Windows 8 Enterprise, Windows 8 Pro (on a domain-joined computer), Windows Server 2012 R2, or Windows Server 2012, see Customize the Start Screen.

To prepare a Start screen layout for export, you simply customize the Start screen on a test computer.

  1. Set up a test computer on which to customize the Start screen. Your test computer should have the operating system that is installed on the users’ computers (Windows 8.1 Enterprise, Windows RT 8.1, or Windows Server 2012 R2). Install all apps and services that the Start screen should display.

  2. Create a new user account that you will use to customize the Start screen layout.

  1. Sign in to your test computer with the user account that you created.

  2. Customize the Start screen as you want users to see it by using the following techniques:

    • Pin apps to the Start screen. From the Start screen, type the name of the app. When the app appears in the search results, right-click the app, and then click Pin to Start.

      To view all apps, click the Down arrow in the bottom-left corner of the Start screen. Right-click any app, and pin or unpin it from the Start screen. When you finish, click the arrow again to display the default Start screen.

    • Unpin apps that you don’t want to display. To unpin an app, right-click the app, and then click Unpin from Start.

    • Drag tiles on the Start screen to reorder or group apps.

    • Create your own app groups. Drag the apps to an empty area. To name a group, right-click a tile. Then type the name over the Name group label in the gray bar that appears above the group.

    For more information, see Personalize the Start Screen.

When you have the Start screen layout that you want your users to see, use the Export-StartLayout cmdlet in Windows PowerShell to export the Start screen to an .xml file.

  1. From the Start screen, open Windows PowerShell.

  2. At the Windows PowerShell command prompt, enter the following command:

    export-startlayout –path <path><file name>.xml -as xml

    In the previous command:

    • -path is a required parameter that specifies the path and file name for the export file. You can specify a local path or a UNC path (for example, \\FileServer01\StartLayouts\StartLayoutMarketing.xml).

      The file must be accessible on the local computer when a user signs in (the user must have Read-only access). If the file is not available, the Start screen layout is not deployed during that session, and the user can make changes to the Start screen.

      If you plan to deploy a GPO that customizes Start screen layouts for domain users, store the .xml file in shared network storage that all of the users can access.

      Use a file name of your choice—for example, StartLayoutMarketing.xml. Include the .xml file name extension. The Export-StartLayout cmdlet does not append the file name extension, and the policy settings require one.

    • -as xml saves the layout in the .xml file format that the Start Screen Layout policy settings require.

You can use the Local Group Policy Editor to provide a customized Start screen layout for any user who signs in on the local computer. To display the customized Start screen for any user who signs in, update the user configuration, configuring Start Screen Layout policy settings for the Start Menu and Taskbar administrative template.

To use local policy settings in Windows RT 8.1, you must turn on the Group Policy Client service. For more information, see Local Group Policy support for Windows RT. If the service is not enabled, you must set the corresponding registry values (discussed earlier, in How Start screen control works).

noteNote
This procedure applies the policy settings on the local computer only. For information about deploying the Start screen layout to users in a domain, see Use Group Policy to deploy a customized Start screen layout in a domain, later in this topic.

  1. On the test computer, open Local Group Policy Editor. To do this, open a command prompt from the Start screen, and type gpedit.

  2. To display the Start Menu and Taskbar administrative template, in the console tree, under User Configuration, expand Administrative Templates, and then click Start Menu and Taskbar. The following graphic shows this menu.

    Start Screen Layout policy settings
  3. Right-click Start Screen Layout in the right pane, and click Edit.

    This opens the Start Screen Layout policy settings, which are shown in the following graphic.

    Policy Settings for Start Screen Layout
  4. To enable the customized Start screen layout on the computer, enter the following settings, and then click OK:

    1. Select the Enabled option.

    2. Under Options, specify the path to the .xml file that contains the Start screen layout. For example, type C:\Users\Test01\StartScreenMarketing.xml.

    3. Optionally, enter a comment to identify the Start screen layout.

    ImportantImportant
    If you disable Start Screen Layout policy settings that have been in effect, you must update the Last Modified date on the .xml file before you can enable the policy settings. This is a known issue in Windows 8.1 Enterprise. In Windows PowerShell, you can update the date on a file by running the following command:

    (ls <path>).LastWriteTime = Get-Date

This procedure adds the customized Start screen layout to the user configuration, which overrides any Start screen layout settings in the local computer configuration when a user signs in on the computer.

To deploy the Start screen layout to users in a domain, use the Group Policy Management Console (GPMC) to configure a domain-based Group Policy Object (GPO) that sets Start Screen Layout policy settings in the Start Menu and Taskbar administrative template for users in a domain. The GPO deploys the Start screen layout at the next user sign-in.

The GPO can be configured from any computer on which the necessary ADMX and ADML files (StartMenu.admx and StartMenu.adml) for Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2 are installed.

The .xml file with the Start screen layout must be located on shared network storage that is available to the users’ computers when they sign in (the users must have Read-only access to the file). If the file is not available at sign-in, the Start screen is not customized during the session, and the user can make changes to the Start screen.

For information about deploying GPOs in a domain, see Working with Group Policy Objects.

After you use Group Policy to import a customized Start screen layout on a computer or in a domain, you can update the layout simply by replacing the .xml file that is specified in the Start Screen Layout policy settings.

  1. Customize the Start screen on your test computer the way that you want it to look for users.

  2. Run the Export-StartLayout cmdlet, with the following format, to export the new Start screen layout to an .xml file that overwrites the original file:

    export-startlayout –path <path><file name>.xml -as xml

That’s all you need to do. The next time the users sign in to their computers, the GPO will import the new Start screen layout.

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