Matt Gemmell

Windows Phone

A guide for iPhone users

Tech 31 min read

Start screen and apps

On Windows Phone, the equivalent of the iOS Home screen is the Start screen. You’ll be seeing it a lot, usually for a brief moment or two as you launch an app. It’s one of my favourite features of Windows Phone.

On iOS, the Home screen hasn’t significantly changed since its first iteration: it’s static and utilitarian, offering the canonical (and only) complete list of the apps installed on your device. You can organise with folders and screens, reorder and delete apps, and that’s about it. For customisation, you’re limited to a background image.

Windows Phone is different. The Start screen is not the canonical app-list; instead, it’s a launcher, which you can configure as you please. It displays apps as Live Tiles, which are rectangular panels that not only launch an app, but also show information or content from that app. They’re much more similar to Android’s Widgets than apps on iOS.

The default Start screen depends on your device, but it’ll look substantially like this.

Start screen colours

A default Start screen.

Folders are available to organise your Live Tiles, if you want. In the screenshot below, “Music+videos” is a folder.

Start screen folders

Folders on the Start screen.

You’ll probably want to take advantage of more extensive customisation. You can set a background image, which will show through any Live Tiles that adopt the system’s accent colour. Most Live Tiles do.

Start screen background 6

A background image on the Start screen

Some Live Tiles are opaque instead (it’s up to the app that provides them), and show either their own branding colour (like Skype, OneNote, and Office below), a logo (like Amazon’s shopping and Kindle apps, eBay, and Three UK below), or content from the app (like Photos below).

Start screen background 8

Live Tiles supplying custom content

You’ll notice that some of the tiles are in the process of flipping over; many Live Tiles animate periodically, to show information like news updates, weather forecasts, a selection of your photos, the cover of the book you’re reading, new tweets, calendar events, and so forth.

The animations are occasional, and give a pleasing sense of activity without restlessness.

Start screen background

Animating Live Tiles

Live Tiles typically support more than one display size. The Start screen is nominally six ‘blocks’ wide (or eight, on devices with high-density displays), and some common sizes for tiles are 1x1, 2x2, and 4x2 blocks.

Just like on iOS, tap-holding on any tile puts the Start screen into a special mode where you can drag tiles around, un-pin them (which only removes them from the Start screen; the corresponding app isn’t affected), or resize them.

In the screenshot below, the Google Mail 4x2 tile is selected. The un-pin icon is at the top-right, and the left-arrow icon is the resizing icon. Tapping it will make the tile assume the next available size, cycling through the options with successive taps. Tiles can be dragged anywhere on their surface, other than the un-pin or resize icons.

Start Live Tiles organise

Resizing and reorganising Live Tiles

With the help of apps that vend blank tiles, you can make some very cool Start screens, and truly personalise the device.

The basic theme of the Start screen, and the device generally, is controlled by a simple group of settings: the background colour (light or dark), the optional background image, and the accent colour.

Settings theme

Theme options

The accent colour is carried through the system, and will show up on navigation bars, the notifications screen, the background of the app-switching interface, text highlights, and so on.

If you don’t have a background image, the accent colour will also show through any Live Tiles that don’t provide their own backgrounds.

Settings accent colour

Choosing an accent colour.

As I said earlier, the Start screen is not the canonical app list; it’s just a launcher. To access the full list of apps on your device, you swipe left from the Start screen (i.e. move right by one screen). You can also scroll to the bottom of all your Live Tiles and tap the right-arrow there, if you want.

You’ll then see the alphabetical app list. It’s grouped into sections by letter, with a numerical category at the top.

Start Apps List

The app list

Tapping any group-heading letter shows an overlay of all letters, and you can tap any one to jump straight to that portion of the list. Letters without any corresponding apps are disabled.

Start Apps List Find

Quick navigation in the app list

Tapping the search icon at the top-left lets you search through all installed apps. You can also continue your search on the Windows Store.

Start Apps List Search

Searching for apps

Tap-holding on any app in the list opens a menu, where you can pin (or un-pin that app to your Start screen), review third-party apps, share a link to the app’s Windows Store page (via social media, email, etc), or uninstall the app.

Start Apps List options

App options

Think of the app list as analogous to the entire set of your iOS Home screens, and the Start screen as like a bigger, much more customisable version of the tray of icons at the bottom of each iOS Home screen.