One of the big problems with Windows 8 was that there was no easy way to enforce a consistent Start screen for end users. Microsoft has addressed this problem with the Windows 8.1 Start screen, and it is now possible to use Group Policy settings to control Start screen configurations.
In order to enforce a standardized Start screen, clients must be running Windows 8.1. This technique can also be adapted to Windows RT 8.1, but the method for doing so is beyond the scope of this article.
Although you can use Group Policy settings to control the Windows 8.1 Start screen configuration, the process works a little bit differently from what you might be used to. The vast majority of Windows Group Policy settings simply have an enable/disable switch and possibly a configuration parameter.
Controlling the Windows 8.1 Start screen via Group Policy is different from using the typical Group Policy setting because the process involves Microsoft PowerShell.
The first step in the process is to perform a clean installation of Windows 8.1 onto a physical or a virtual computer that you can use as a model. After doing so, configure the Start screen however you would like it to be presented to the users. This brings up a couple of important points.
First of all, remember that the Start screen is primarily an interface for launching apps. As such, it is perfectly acceptable to install applications onto the computer that you are using as a model. You can arrange the tiles for the apps in any way that you want, even creating app groups if you'd like.
Keep in mind, however, that when you use a Group Policy setting to control users' Start screens, the setting will make users' Start screens look like your model computer, but it will not install any apps. App installation must be handled separately.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you might have to repeat this process several times. Most organizations do not have a standard Start screen that applies to everyone in the entire organization. Instead, the Start screens might vary by department. For instance, the human resources department might have one Start screen, while IT has another.
A Start screen for each department
Creating different Start screens for each department usually isn't a problem. Organizations often already have a structure to ensure that separate Group Policy settings are applied to various units. Such an Active Directory structure can most certainly be used when it comes to Start screen customization. You will, however, have to keep track of which Start screen configuration applies to which department.
So with that said, go ahead and configure the Windows 8.1 Start screen as you would like it to be displayed for your users. After doing so, open Windows PowerShell and run the following command:
Export-StartLayout –Path <Path\filename.xml> -as xml
For example, if you were creating a Start screen layout for the human resources department, your command might look like this:
Export-StartLayout –Path C:\StartScreens\HR.xml –as XML
After you have used the above command to create an XML file, you will have to copy it to the central store on your domain controller. Remember, any domain controller could authenticate a client computer, so you will need to use the central store to ensure that the XML file that you created is replicated to all of your domain controllers.
The next thing that you will need to do is to download the administrative templates for Windows 8.1. These templates provide Windows 8.1 Group Policy settings. The administrative templates should also be copied to the central store.
The last step in the process is to edit the Group Policy settings that control the Start screen layout. To do so, open the Group Policy Editor on a machine that has the administrative templates installed, and navigate to User Configuration | Policies | Administrative Templates | Start Menu and Taskbar. Now, enable the Start screen layout policy, and provide the name and location of the XML file that you created earlier.
As you can see, this technique makes it relatively easy to customize the Windows 8.1 Start screen. Although this technique is designed for use on machines that are domain-joined, you can use a variation of it to enforce a standardized Start screen layout on non-domain-joined PCs through the local security policy.