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How to customise Windows 8

The new tattoos are only the latest additions to the many personalisation options Windows 8 already boasted in previous pre-releases. In fact, the very first choice in Windows 8's PC settings page is "Personalise," where you can make the Lock screen, your account picture, and Start screen reflect your own style.

Windows 8 also inherits many of the customisation options that were available in Windows 7, in the newer OS's desktop mode. Not only can you choose a desktop background, screensaver, and system sounds, but you can also take advantage of downloadable Themes, including some that are dynamically updated throughout the day. And you can now sync your customisations among all Windows 8 PCs you sign into.

There are already some third-party tools out there which offer Windows 8 customisations, but since there's so much you can do with nothing but the operating system’s built-in tools, this collection of customisation tips will concentrate purely on those. If you haven't already downloaded the Windows 8 Release Preview, you can do so and install it on any computer capable of running Windows 7. For a complete overview of what's new in the OS, read our First Look at Windows 8 RTM article.

1. Lock screen picture

The first thing you see when you power up your Windows 8 PC or tablet is the Lock screen. This is a familiar concept for smartphone users, but it's a new one for PCs. Let the first thing you see be something you love. Windows 8 RTM has six cool choices for this. The default is a Seattle scene showing the Space Needle, a mountain, and a green hill. The other appealing options include a honeycomb, a nautilus, a piano keyboard, train tracks in a city, and prisms of colour. To get to this option, simply choose the Settings charm from the Start screen, Change PC settings, Personalise, and then Lock screen.

2. Lock screen apps

The Lock screen isn't just a static picture waiting for you to log in. In addition to indicating battery level along with the date and time, it can display useful information such as the number of email messages awaiting you, the current weather, and calendar appointments and reminders. It isn’t just built-in apps that have the ability to display pithy information on the Lock screen, but third-party apps like Twitter clients and messaging apps can, too. You can also specify an app that will display detailed status information on the Lock screen. The only default choices for this in RTM were Weather and Calendar.

3. Start screen colour and tattoos

From its first pre-release version, Windows 8 offered a few background and foreground colour combinations for the Start screen, and this is the first choice you make on your initial run of the OS after installation. With Release Preview, Windows 8 offers 25 different colour combinations for your Start screen – enough for every taste. Note that your colour choice also affects the charms, your tattoo choice, and even the Windows logo itself, which has been redesigned to be colour-agnostic.

Prior to the arrival of Windows 8 RTM, you could grace the background of your Start screen tiles with a few mild patterns, but with RTM, the choices for these "tattoos" exploded into phantasmagorias of design and colour. The milder options are still available, but now you have 20 total tattoos to choose from, with some real doozies among them, some sporting flowers, planets, gears, guitars, or creatures. Now, the selection can truly be considered artistic. To get to this option, simply choose the Settings charm from the Start screen, Change PC settings, Personalise, and then Start screen.

4. Tile sizes

One of the first things you'll notice on the Windows 8 Start screen is that some of the app tiles are twice as wide as others. Don't agree with the default sizes? No problem. Just right click on a tile (or hold your finger on it and drag up or down if you’re using a touchscreen), to display the tile options. If the tile is the larger size, you'll see a "Smaller" button, and vice versa for a large tile. Other choices here include unpinning the tile from the Start menu, uninstalling the app, and turning off its live updates.

5. Group and re-arrange tiles

There are plenty of ways to arrange your Start screen tiles to taste: Simply click and drag a tile to change its position on the screen (or hold and drag on a touchscreen). For more global changes, you can pinch to zoom out (or Ctrl-mouse wheel), making your whole screen shrink, with all tiles on multiple screens visible. From this view, you can move and even name groups of tiles.

6. Account picture

In Windows 8, your user picture is always staring up at you from your login screen and from the top right of the Start screen. Why not make sure you use a good one? From the PC Settings/Personalise page's Account picture tab, you can either shoot a photo from the PC's built-in webcam, or choose any image file in a folder on the PC.

7. Customise your default apps

Microsoft's operating system comes with several new-style apps, which you can modify to your own needs and interests. Four in particular lend themselves to customisation – News, Finance, Sports and Weather. As with most new-style Windows 8 apps, you reach the customisations by right clicking on the program's running screen, or, if you're using a touchscreen, by swiping in from the top or up from the bottom of the display. With any of these apps, you can pin a particular set of content to the Start screen, rather than just the general app. For example, in the Sports app, you can pin a version just for your favourite team.

8. Notifications

Windows 8 features new "toast" notifications that appear temporarily at the top right of the screen when an app or the system has a message for you. So, for example, when an app has been successfully installed, or you've received an instant message. From the Settings charm, choose Change PC settings, then Notifications. From this settings page, you can turn notifications from every app capable of sending them on or off, or indeed turn all of them off at once. You can also mute the notification sound if you prefer.

9. Desktop background

A fair portion of the desktop customisations that existed under Windows 7 remain in Windows 8's desktop mode. You can change the background (aka "wallpaper"), colour, sounds, and screensaver. There are still Themes, including some with live-updated RSS themes (the ones featuring the wonderful daily Bing photos are favourites). What's new is that these theme choices can be synced with any other Windows 8 PC you log into.

10. Taskbar options

The Windows 8 desktop taskbar has been flattened – there’s no more 3D translucent Aero look and feel – but you can still do a lot to customise it. Just right click on the taskbar, and choose Properties. Nearly all of the old reliable Windows 7 options are still available. You can change its position from the bottom to the top or either side, auto-hide it, change to small buttons, and “un-combine” a program's windows.

You can even add toolbars to the taskbar for addresses, links, the touch keyboard, or for Desktop access. This last one will be of great interest to those who lament the loss of the dear departed Start button – it grants access to not only the desktop icons, but also Libraries, My Computer, Control Panel, and more.