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Windows 10: The best tricks, tips, and tweaks

Windows 10 is chock-full of handy, hidden new features worth exploring. Check out the best tips and tricks here.

windows 10 working
Adam Patrick Murray

Digging deep into Windows 10

Windows 10, Microsoft’s back-to-basics re-embracing of the PC, is brimming with handy new features, 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 some of Windows 10’s new features into the shape you see fit. Here are some of the most useful tweaks, tricks, and tips we’ve found, including a spate of fresh finds from this spring’s mammoth Windows 10 Creators Update.

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. Got any tricks of your own? Share them in the comments!

windows 10 pc gaming game mode
Microsoft

Game Bar

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 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 Creators Update Dynamic Lock
IDG / Mark Hachman

Dynamic Lock

Adios, Windows + L. The Windows 10 Creators Update added Dynamic Lock, 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.

storagespacesettings
Ian Paul/IDG

Storage sense

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. The Windows 10 Creators Update adds a new feature to 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.

start menu folders blue and gold
IDG / Mark Hachman

Start menu folders

What’s old is new again: With the Windows 10 Creators Update, you can create basic Start menu folders, organizing Live Tiles into clusters. Simply drag your Start menu apps on top of each other to create folders that expand when clicked on.

nightlight
Ian Paul/PCWorld

Night Light

Windows 10’s Creators Update added a handy feature designed to help spare your eyes as you browse the evening away. Night Light, as the feature’s called, 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 calendar popup

Calendar embraces Calendar

The Anniversary Update added helpful new functionality into the Windows taskbar’s calendar, which has long been the barest of bare-bones features. Now, the taskbar calendar integrates with Windows 10’s core Calendar app, so if you click the date and time in the right-hand side of your taskbar, the calendar that pops up includes a full look at your schedule for the day.

Finally.

windows 10 troubleshoot
Mark Hachman/IDG

Troubleshooting, troubleshot

The Windows 10 Creators Update adds 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.

 

windows 10 activation troubleshooter

Activation Troubleshooter

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.

windows 10 audio source switching

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. 

ella headphones
Blue Microphone

Spatial sound

That’s not the only audio trick lurking within Windows 10. The Creators Update added a feature called Windows Sonic for Headphones—a virtual surround sound format that can make the sound 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!

hey cortana

Make Cortana's ears perk up

Cortana’s finally 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.

While you’re poking around Cortana’s options, you can dive into the Notebook menu to fine-tune exactly what personal data Microsoft’s digital assistant can access. Remember, however, that like Google Now, Cortana’s effectiveness is directly related to how much she knows about you.

cortana find pictures

Powerful natural language search

Cortana can handle all sorts of commands you issue using natural language, such as playing music, creating reminders, showing the weather, or even remembering random facts for you, but the most powerful use of her natural language abilities revolves around basic search capabilities. You can give Cortana basic commands like “Find pictures from June” or “Find documents with Windows 10” and she’ll apply the appropriate filters, then scour your local files and OneDrive storage for results.

You can now enable Cortana on the Windows lock screen as well, where you can 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.

windows phone cortana

Cortana everywhere

Cortana on your PC and Cortana on your phone keep close ties, drastically increasing the usefulness of installing the digital assistant on all your devices.

Cortana can pull notifications and low-battery warnings from your phone and beam them to your PC, reducing the need to pull your phone out of your pocket—and the threat of a dead device at the end of the day. You can also receive your Android or Windows 10 Mobile phone’s notifications on your Windows PC, and respond to texts via Cortana. One last trick: Pulling up Maps directions on your PC and pushing them over to your phone via the Cortana app.

cortana lock screen
Mark Hachman

Muzzle Cortana

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: Simply logging out of your Microsoft Account in Cortana. To do so, head to Notebook > About me > User account > Sign out. This will severely limit functionality, though. Alternatively, you can limit Cortana’s awareness and use a third-party local search tool. We cover those details in PCWorld’s guide to taming Cortana after the Anniversary Update.

windows 10 command prompt options

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.

windows 10 bash shell

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.

To enable Bash, you’ll need to be using a 64-bit Windows 10 AU build. Head to Settings > Update & Security > For Developers and enable Developer Mode. With that done, navigate to Control Panel > Programs > Turn Windows Features On or Off and activate Windows Subsystem for Linux (Beta), then click OK. You’ll be prompted to restart your PC. After you do, just search for “Bash” in the taskbar search menu to start your development engines.

Microsoft sure doesn’t make that simple, eh?

windows 10 virtual desktops

Move open windows between virtual desktops

Virtual desktops let you segregate your open apps into discrete areas—literally multiple, virtualized versions of your PC’s desktops. Switching between open virtual desktops is easy enough using Task View (the button that looks like two panels, one over the other, in the taskbard) or Windows key + Tab, while Alt + Tab jumps you between open apps across all desktops. There’s also a way to actually shift an open app from one virtual desktop to another if you’d like to shuffle things around.

First, head to the virtual desktop housing the app you’d like to move to another virtual desktop, then open the Task View interface. Just click-and-hold on the app you’d like to move, then drag it to the desired virtual desktop at the bottom of the screen. You can also drag it to the +New Desktop option in the lower-right corner to create a new virtual desktop for the app.

windows 10 folder options

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 miracast

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.

Should. In our tests, casting to a Roku box proved tricky, while Vimeo delivered more consistent results than casting YouTube videos. Regardless, it’s a nifty feature. Try it out!

edge cortana shopping

Shop with Edge

After you install Windows 10, you might just want to make Microsoft’s Edge your go-to browser—at least for shopping.

That’s because if you open a site like Target.com or BestBuy.com in Edge, Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, will often appear and offer to use one of several coupons it found automatically. Now that’s helpful.

windows 10 updates advanced options

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. If you have an update pending, you’ll see the screen at left, which lets you schedule your reboot after you select the “Select a restart time” radio button. Even better, you can dive into the Advanced options and link and ask Windows to notify you to schedule a reboot whenever updates are ready to rock.

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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.

windows 10 updates delivery

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.

keyboard

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.

windows 10 tablet mode settings

Tinker with Tablet Mode

Windows 10’s Continuum, which dynamically switches from the traditional desktop to a more Metro-like touch interface when you’re using a touchscreen, is 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 Continuum.

Simply search for “Tablet Mode” and select the “Tablet Mode Settings” option that appears. 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.

windows 10 stream xbox games

Xbox One ties

Windows 10 features myriad hooks into the Xbox ecosystem. Beyond the presence of Windows 10’s Xbox app itself, which serves as a PC-based hub for your Xbox Live activities, you can stream Xbox One games to your Windows 10 PC, as well as capture PC game videos and share it in your Xbox Live friend feed using the Game DVR tool described earlier.

Cord cutters can use the Xbox One itself to stream live broadcasts to your Windows 10 device, and the powerful “Xbox Play Anywhere” initiative lets you buy a game once and play it on both the Xbox One and Windows PCs, with cloud-based saves and multiplayer traveling with you across devices.

pin to start settings app

Quick link to specific Settings app locations

Windows 10’s new Settings app hides another particularly useful feature: The ability to pin any specific subsection of the app to your Start menu. The new Action Center already offers configurable quick-toggle buttons for common actions—like enabling/disabling Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Tablet Mode, et cetera—but this trick lets you quickly jump to a far more diverse array of tools.

Pinning a Settings app subsection to the Start menu is super easy: Just navigate to the menu or setting you’d like quick access to, then right-click on the subsection’s name in the left-hand navigation pane and select Pin to Start.

This tip isn’t just for the Settings app, however—you can also use it in a limited number of other Windows apps, such as Mail and OneNote. Play around!

get office windows 10

Silence the annoying Office ads

One of the more annoying parts of Windows 10 is the way it semi-frequently pops ads and promotional offers for Office, even if you have Office installed. Ugh. Fortunately, it’s easy to stop Windows 10’s annoying Microsoft Office ads.

The messages flow forth from Windows 10’s Get Office app, which is installed by default. The easiest way to kill the notifications is to simply right-click on the app in the Start menu and select Uninstall to send it to oblivion. Alternatively, if you want to keep the app around for some reason, you can dive into Settings > System > Notifications & actions and disable notifications from Get Office.

PCWorld’s guide to eradicating Windows 10’s many native ads can help you wrest even more control back over your operating system. 

windows 10 notifications

Manage your notifications

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. 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.

windows 10 logo

More obscure new 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.

Microsoft’s loaded the operating system with power tools designed for PC enthusiasts. And these 12 obscure new Windows 10 features may fly under the radar, but between these and virtual desktop support, Windows 10 renders a decent chunk of our list of free PC programs that ease headaches obsolete.