I'd like to be able to render in cycles without the annoying tile system, just letting Blender keep working on the overall image, until I like the way it looks. Just like when I hit shift+Z, with preview samples set to zero. Is there a way to do this?


Yes, you can easily do this.

In your render settings under Performance just check: Progressive Refine.

Use very high samples and just stop the render, when you are satisfied with the way it looks.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that in most cases rendering same samples with Progressive Refine can be a bit longer than without it, though advantage as mentioned is that render can be stopped and be available as whole image. $\endgroup$ – Mr Zak Dec 17 '17 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ I just did some quick test on a simple scene and with "Progressive Refine" NOT check the render took 90 seconds, with "Progressive Refine" checked I stopped it after 15 minutes with 30 minutes still remaining. It is much better to keep it unchecked. $\endgroup$ – icYou520 Dec 28 '17 at 21:31

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