If you had the opportunity to attend TechEd North America 2013, one of the new Windows 8.1 features that was showed off was the ability to set the layout of the Start screen in Group Policy. (In the event you didn’t attend, you can watch a replay of the keynote here; skip to 13:30 to see the demo of customizing the Start screen.)
Before you get started, the Start Screen control feature is only available in Windows 8.1 Enterprise. If you’re running Windows 8 [any edition] or Windows 8.1 Pro, you’ll need to switch to 8.1 Enterprise.
First, start on a Windows 8.1 Enterprise computer that is representative of what your end users will have. Organize the Start screen including resizing any tiles, creating groups, naming groups, etc.
Export-StartLayout -path C:pathStartLayout.xml -As XML
One of the key points to remember with the Export-StartLayout cmdlet is that the default output is binary. If you don’t include -As XML, you’ll end up with a binary file that can’t be used with Group Policy.
Once you’ve generated the XML file, you’ll need a file share to store the file. This file share (and the underlying file permissions) will need to be accessible by any user receiving the policy. Even if you’re assigning the policy to the Computer side, the user that is logging in will need Read access to the XML file. In most situations, you can give Domain Users Read access to the share and file system and you should be ready to go unless your environment requires locking things down a little tighter.
If you decide to inspect the XML file, this is what you’ll see (after inserting a few carriage returns):
Computer Configuration > Policies > Administrative Templates > Start Menu and Taskbar > Start Screen Layout
User Configuration > Policies > Administrative Templates > Start Menu and Taskbar > Start Screen Layout
The short version… don’t count on it. In my testing, Start screen layouts created on one bitness level typically transferred to the other with very inconsistent results. For example, I used a reference system with Windows 8.1 Enterprise x64 and Office 2013 x64 to generate the screenshots used earlier in this post. Below is a screenshot of that layout used on a system with Windows 8.1 Enterprise x86 and Office 2013 x86.
What happens if…
The end user has never logged into the PC.
Assuming you’re getting your Group Policy in place before a Windows 8.1 deployment, this will probably be the most common scenario. In this scenario, the user that logs in will get your configured settings from the XML file.
The end user has logged in and customized his/her Start screen and you’ve configured a new XML file in policy.
In this scenario, the user’s Start screen will change to your configured XML file. So, you may want to warn end users that the change is coming.
The XML file used in Group Policy is changed or a different file is used.
The user’s Start screen will be updated at their next logon.
An app (either Metro/Modern or Desktop) is configured in the XML file for the Start screen, but isn’t installed?
In this scenario, the tile will not show up on the Start screen. If the app does get installed on the computer, it will show up immediately after the install completes on the Start screen.
Do local non-domain users receive the Computer side policy?
Yes. As long as the user account can access the XML file, it will receive the policy.