Digging deep into Windows 10
Windows 10's constantly evolving nature means fresh features arrive twice per year, and with all the new goodies come a legion of new tweaks and tricks—some of which unlock powerful functionality hidden to everyday users. Others simply let you mold the Windows 10 experience into the shape you see fit. Here are some of the most useful tweaks, tricks, and tips we’ve found, starting with some of the highlights from the Windows 10 April 2018 Update (which includes more nifty hidden features than we can include here).
Be warned: Some of these may break as the operating system evolves given Microsoft’s new “Windows as a service” mentality. We plan to update this article over time to reflect the OS’s current status.
Timeline helps you pick up where you left off. Clicking the Task View button in the taskbar or pressing Windows Key + Tab summons the feature, which displays a—you guessed it—time line of your activity in supported apps, stretching back over the past. Even more handily, Microsoft lets you group related apps together into “Activities” in Timeline, so that when you open that week-old budget document, for example, the presentations and websites you referenced at the time can be easily summoned as well. This even syncs across devices, so it could be especially useful if you use multiple PCs.
The fly in the ointment: Only a limited number of apps work with Timeline currently, though Microsoft offers tools for developers to bake in support. That includes Office, Adobe’s Creative Cloud, and native Windows 10 apps like News and Maps, but Microsoft Edge is the only compatible browser. Bummer. You can deactivate Timeline by heading to Settings > Privacy > Activity History.
Near Share makes it easy to share files and URLs with local PCs over the air, negating the need for flash drives or chat apps to pass something along. If you open the Share interface in Microsoft Edge or File Explorer, you’ll see PCs with Nearby Sharing enabled appear as an option if you have the April 2018 Update installed. Recipients receive a pop-up notification when something is sent. Think of it as an alternative to Apple’s Airdrop, albeit one without any mobile support.
To use Near Share, your computer needs both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi working, and you’ll have to enable the Nearby Sharing option in Settings before you can start using it. Transfer speeds were pretty slow and Bluetooth-like in our tests, so you may still want to resort to alternative means to pass especially large files around. Microsoft says the feature automatically chooses to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth depending on what’s available, and what’s faster.
Ransomware is a growing (and damned nasty) problem. It infects PCs, encrypts your files, and holds everything hostage until you pay a ransom—hence the name. The best defense against ransomware is frequent backups and strong security software, but Windows 10 now includes basic protection right in your operating system.
Controlled Folder Access “protects your files and folders from unauthorized changes by unfriendly applications.” Your Documents, Pictures, Movies, and Desktop folders are protected by default, though you can block other folders manually or whitelist trusted software to access your locked-down info. You can tweak Controlled Folder Access in the Virus & threat protection setting portion of the Windows Defender Security Center.
Deep PC and phone integration
The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update in October 2017 greatly intertwined your PC and your phone. There's a new Phone section in the Settings app that allows you to push websites and files from your phone to your PC, and new Edge browser and Microsoft Launcher apps accomplish the same thing. You can also see your texts on your PC and reply to them from right within Windows itself, or use your phone to sign into Windows instead of a password.
Check out PCWorld's look at 3 ways Windows 10 uses Android and iOS phones to make a better PC for a deeper look at cross-device functionality.
Adios, Windows + L. Dynamic Lock is a handy feature that pairs your PC with your phone over Bluetooth, then automatically locks your computer when you wander away from it. To start using it, marry the two devices in Control Panel > Hardware and Sound > Devices and Printers, then activate Dynamic Lock at Settings > Account > Sign-in options.
PCWorld’s extensive Dynamic Lock guide can walk you through everything you need to know about the feature, including in-depth tips that let you fine-tune details like activating the feature at a shorter range.
If you’re into playing around on your PC, Windows 10’s Game Bar—summoned by pressing Windows + G in-game—holds all sorts of nifty extras. It’s always been able to take screenshots or videos of gameplay clips, but as of the Windows 10 Creators Update, the Game Bar also offers easy-peasy Beam game streaming and the intriguing Game Mode, which can improve performance on resource-limited systems. The April 2018 Update overhauled the interface, which you can see in the image above.
The Game Bar’s handy even if you don’t actually play, as it can be used to record video of any app—not just games. Windows 10 also has a dedicated Gaming section in its Start menu Settings to let you tinker with options, including Xbox networking and parental controls.
Per-app GPU management
The Windows 10 April 2018 Update added the ability to tell Windows which graphics hardware—discrete or integrated—to use when you open specific apps. It sounds niche, but the feature could prove pretty helpful if you’ve got a gaming laptop and want it to last longer. By default, booting up a game switches over to discrete graphics, which use a lot more energy than the graphics cores integrated in Intel chips and AMD Ryzen APUs. But a lot of indie and retro games play just fine on integrated graphics. With Windows 10’s per-app GPU management, you can manually tell the system to stick to the more power-efficient option for games that don’t need the extra oomph.
Go to Settings > Display, then click the Graphics settings link at the very bottom of the page to start tinkering.
OneDrive Files on Demand
It's back, huzzah! OneDrive Files on Demand resurrects Windows 8.1's “placeholder” feature for the cloud storage service baked into Windows 10. OneDrive Files on Demand shows all of the files you have stored in OneDrive in a folder on your PC, but they're just pointers synced with the cloud—not actually files installed on your PC. Unless you want them to be. You can select which files and folders to make available locally.
Intrigued? Check out PCWorld's guide to how to turn on OneDrive Files on Demand.
Over time, your PC can quietly fill with needless junk without your even realizing it, as the Recycle Bin and temporary files suck up your storage. Storage Sense helps combat the creep. Head to System > Storage and enable the Storage Sense option to have Windows start automatically clearing out unneeded temporary files, and deleting any files in your Recycle Bin over 30 days old.
You can tweak those options using the Change how we free up space link underneath the option, but it doesn’t do much in its debut state. Hopefully Microsoft will beef up this feature over time, making the settings even more useful in the future.
The Fall Creators Update added “Mixed Reality” to Windows 10. The most obvious use for it is in the legion of new Windows Mixed Reality headsets, but you can check out the benefits even if you don't have one of those. The Mixed Reality Viewer app lets you drag digital 3D objects you've created in the Paint 3D app into the real world, using the combined might of your device's camera and display. It's not really augmented reality since you can't interact with the objects, but it's closer to “Mixed Reality” than the headsets are.
Somewhat related, the nifty Story Remix tool in the Photos app lets you add fantastic 3D animations to videos you've captured, among many other talents. It's pretty sweet!
Start menu folders
What’s old is new again: You can create basic Start menu folders in Windows 10, organizing Live Tiles into clusters. Simply drag your Start menu apps on top of each other to create folders that expand when clicked on.
Night Light spares your eyes as you browse the evening away. It swipes functionality from the beloved f.lux app to adjust your screen’s color temperature during after-dark computing sessions. That makes it easier to fall asleep when you’re done.
To activate Night Light, head to Settings > System > Display. Once you’ve done so, open the feature’s settings to fine-tune its behavior. PCWorld’s Night Light primer can help walk you through your options.
Windows 10 includes a killer feature for DIY types: The ability to tie your Windows 10 license to your Microsoft Account, rather than to your PC’s hardware. Say sayonara to the days of calling Microsoft support to activate your OS simply because you swapped out your motherboard.
If Windows 10 freaks out after you upgrade your PC, go to Settings > Update & Security, add your Microsoft account (if it isn’t linked already), and then click Troubleshoot at the bottom of the screen. Hit Microsoft’s Account Troubleshooter FAQ for the full scoop.
Another awesome perk for enthusiasts: You’ll find a new Start fresh with a clean Windows install option alongside Windows 10’s Refresh and Reset tools, which goes even further than the other options by blasting away any bloatware preinstalled by your device manufacturer. You’ll be prompted to download a tool from Microsoft’s website in order to start the procedure, though.
The Windows 10 Creators Update added a helpful touch for distressed PC users. The operating system’s consolidated all of its troubleshooting tools in a single location: Home > Update & Security > Troubleshoot. If you run into trouble, run there first.
Audio source switching
Windows 10’s in-taskbar volume controls pack a niche, yet nifty touch: selectable sources. Clicking the audio device name in the volume controls summons a list of all connected audio outputs, meaning you can switch from your headphones to your speakers and back again without having to dive into the Control Panel. Yay!
The April 2018 Update added more granular audio options to the Settings app too, breaking them away from the Control Panel even further.
That’s not the only audio trick lurking within Windows 10. Windows Sonic for Headphones offers a virtual surround sound format that can make the audio coming from your headset feel more lush and atmospheric. The effectiveness of the feature varies depending on your gear and how sensitive you are towards audio cues.
To activate Windows Sonic, right-click the speaker/audio icon in the system tray on the right side of your task bar, then select Spatial sound (none). In the window that opens, click the drop-down menu and select Windows Sonic for Headphones. Click apply, then OK, and you’re done!
The Fall Creators Update finally dragged Windows 10 into the modern age with native emoji support. Yay! When you're inputting text, press Windows Key + ; (semi-colon) to summon the emoji keyboard. What took so long?
The April 2018 Update, meanwhile, added a mobile-like autocorrect feature for when you're typing with a PC keyboard. It sounds handy in theory, but in practice, it's tricky to use and makes some awful suggestions.
Make Cortana's ears perk up
Cortana made the leap to the PC in Windows 10, assuming control of the operating system’s search functions and dishing out just as much sass as the Windows Phone version. But by default, she doesn’t listen for your commands.
If you’d like to be able to just bark commands at your PC, open Cortana by clicking the search field in the taskbar and select the Notebook icon in the left-side options pane. Select Settings from the list, then simply enable the Let Cortana respond when you say “Hey Cortana” option. You’ll need an active microphone for this to work, of course.
Enabling Cortana on the Windows lock screen lets you use voice commands to view and edit your schedule at a glance. It’s pretty handy! To turn on the feature, open Cortana and head to “Cog” icon > Settings > Use Cortana even when my device is locked.
But what if you don’t want Cortana listening in on you whatsoever? Microsoft unfortunately disabled all overt methods for disabling the digital assistant in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, along with a handful of other things. Don’t despair. There’s still a workaround for closing her eyes and ears using a quick registry edit. Here’s how to kill Cortana if you don’t want the digital assistant to share your searches and other info with Microsoft’s servers..
Secret, powerful new Command Prompt tools
Windows 10 packs a slew of nifty new command-line features, including—hallelujah!—the ability to copy and paste inside the command prompt with Crtl + C and Crtl + V.
To activate the goodies, open the command prompt. Right-click its title bar, then select Properties. You can find and enable the new features under the Edit Options section of the Options tab.
Bash comes to Windows
If you got all hot and bothered over the ability to use keyboard shortcuts to paste text in the Command Prompt, wait until you get a load of this.
The Windows 10 Anniversary Update added the full, legendary Bash shell to Microsoft’s operating system, thanks to a partnership with Canonical, the company that guided Ubuntu Linux’s development. And it’s running natively, without virtual machines or containers. With the right tricks, you can even use Bash to run graphic Linux applications or even the Unity desktop itself right inside Windows—though those unintended features are definitely limited. Look for Ubuntu, Fedora, and SUSE Linux entries in the Windows Store to start using Bash in Windows.
Turn off File Explorer's Quick Access view
When you open File Explorer in Windows 10, it defaults to a new Quick Access view that shows your most frequently accessed folders and recently viewed files. I love it, personally, but if you’d rather File Explorer defaulted to the “This PC” view found in Windows 8, here’s how.
Open File Explorer, then select View > Options from the Ribbon. A Folder Options window will open. Click the “Open File Explorer” drop-down menu at top, then select the “This PC” option. Click OK and you’re done!
Windows 10’s Action Center houses and manages the notifications spawned by your system's various apps. You might not want every Windows Store app you install barking at you all the time, however, or maybe you don’t want to see any notifications while you’re in presentation mode. You might just want to silent the annoying ads that the Get Office app spawns. Fortunately, those are easy to tweak.
To tinker with you your notification settings, head to Start menu > Settings > Systems > Notifications and actions. Individual Windows Store apps, like the Mail app, tend to have more granular notification options in the Settings menus inside the apps themselves. Our guide to Windows 10's Action Center notifications holds much more info.
Cast videos to TVs and more
No Chromecast? No problem, at least after Windows 10’s November update, which enabled the Edge browser to cast media to Miracast- or DLNA-equipped devices with just a few clicks. Beware that the implementation has some quirks, and won’t work with DRM-protected streams from Netflix, Hulu, and the like. YouTube works just fine though!
To beam a video to your TV, open it in Edge, then click on the three horizontal dots in the upper-right corner of the browser. A drop-down menu appears; click Cast media to device. After a moment, a black window with the names of all nearby Miracast/DLNA devices will appear. Simply choose the one you want and after a few minutes, it should begin to play—though it’s kind of finicky depending on the service you’re casting.
Schedule your restarts
This is wonderful. If you’ve got pending updates that require you to reboot your PC, Windows 10 will allow you to schedule a specific time for it to do so. Finally!
Open the Settings option in the Start menu, then head to Updates and Recovery > Windows Update > Restart options to see the scheduling screen above.
Get Windows Updates from other sources
But the Windows Update upgrades don’t end there. Windows 10 introduces a new option that lets you download updates using peer-to-peer technology, rather than Microsoft directly. It could help you get that hot security patch faster when everybody’s hammering Microsoft’s dedicated servers, or save you bandwidth in a computer-crowded house—just download the new patch once from Microsoft, then share it among the PCs under your care.
To tinker with the setting, head to Settings > Update & Recovery > Windows Update > Advanced Options > Choose how you download updates. By default, “Get updates from more than one place” is enabled and configured to grab updates from PCs on both your local network and the Internet at large. If you don’t like the idea of your PC using your bandwidth to share Windows Updates with strangers, be sure to disable it. If you leave it active, the “Delivery Optimizations” link lets you fine-tune how Windows uses your network to download and share updates, as you can see above.
Seize control of Windows Updates
While the ability to schedule installation times for updates is very welcome indeed, not everyone is happy about the way Windows 10 handles patches—specifically, that you can’t refuse them. Windows 10 Pro users—but not Windows 10 Home users—can delay downloading updates for some time, but eventually, Microsoft will force them on you.
There are some actions you can take to exert control over your Windows Update experience, however. Most notably, if you’re using Wi-Fi for connectivity, you can set Windows 10’s Wi-Fi connections as metered to download updates when you’d like to, rather than when Microsoft wants you to. The Active Hours feature lets you tell Windows specific times not to install updates. And if you ever encounter a borked update that refuses to play nice with your PC, Microsoft’s released a tool that allows you to choose individual updates so they won’t be downloaded again.
Those workarounds aren’t a replacement for being able to manually choose the Windows Update you’d like to install, but they should help ease the sting a little, at least.
Fresh keyboard shortcuts!
Windows 10 packs a handful of fresh keyboard shortcuts, all tied to newfound abilities inside the revamped operating system. There are many more than we can list here, so head over to PCWorld’s guide to Windows 10’s keyboard shortcuts to learn all about them. If you really want to get fancy, augment those hotkeys with Windows 10's new touchpad gestures for true shortcut mastery.
Tinker with Tablet Mode
Windows 10 dynamically switches from the traditional desktop to a more Metro-like touch interface when you’re using a touchscreen. It's supposed to kick into action when you connect or disconnect a keyboard from your Windows hybrid or tablet, or you can activate it manually via the Action Center. But you can also tweak how the operating system handles mode switching.
Head to Start > System > Tablet Mode. Here, you’ll be able to tell Windows whether you want to even use Tablet Mode on this device, and specify how you want to handle Tablet Mode prompts if so. You can also tell Windows to keep your open and pinned apps on the taskbar when in Tablet Mode if you so desire, as well as to boot into tablet mode at startup.
More obscure Windows tools
The amount of new goodies in Windows 10 is almost mind-boggling. Even after all these tips, you’re still only scratching the surface of the operating system’s depths. Heck, the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update alone added dozens of new features.
Microsoft’s loaded the operating system with power tools designed for PC enthusiasts and obscure Windows 10 features that fly under the radar, but ease everyday headaches. And once you’ve wrapped your head around everything Windows 10 has to offer, be sure to load up your PC with the best free software around.