Windows 10 is the best operating system that’s come along from Microsoft in a long time. It’s a shape-shifter that changes its interface depending upon whether you’re using a traditional computer or a touch-based one. It undoes the damage wrought by Windows 8, including eliminating the awkward Charms bar and bringing back the long-mourned Start menu. A lot more has changed as well, with a default browser called Edge, the integration of the Cortana digital assistant, links to Microsoft’s cloud-based OneDrive cloud storage service and plenty more.
Whether you’ve upgraded to Windows 10 from an earlier version of Windows or if you’ve got it on a new PC, this cheat sheet will get you up to speed on it. I’ll cover everything you need to know, and I’ve also provided quick-reference charts listing useful keyboard shortcuts, touchscreen gestures and touchpad gestures.
Keep in mind that there have been seven major updates to Windows 10 since its initial release in July 2015. This story is based on the Windows 10 May 2019 Update, a.k.a. version 1903, so the features that are described here and the screenshots you see may differ from what you see on-screen if you have an older version of Windows 10.
Note: If you want to get the most out of Windows 10, you’ll have to use a Microsoft ID as your user account. Without a Microsoft ID, you won’t be able to use a number of Windows 10 apps or sync settings among multiple devices. So when you set up Windows 10 for the first time, sign in with an existing Microsoft ID or create a new one.
Before we get started, a few words about some terminology you’ll need to know. Microsoft has sowed enormous confusion with a set of lightweight apps that were originally designed for the Windows 8 touch-oriented Start screen interface. It first called them Metro apps, and then through the years changed their names to Modern apps, Windows Store apps, and then Universal Windows apps. Now it’s settled simply on Windows apps, although at times the company also calls them Universal Windows apps. In this article, we’ll refer to them as Windows apps.
What about apps designed for the desktop? Microsoft now calls them Windows desktop applications. In this article we’ll call them desktop applications for simplicity’s sake.
The Start menu
The loudest complaint that desktop users had about Windows 8 was the death of the Start menu. In Windows 10 it’s back with a vengeance. When you use Windows 10 on a desktop or laptop, you boot directly into the desktop. Click the Start button at the lower left of the desktop to bring up the Start menu — command central for traditional PC users. (Those who use Windows 10 on a tablet will instead see a Start screen; more on that later in the story.)
The menu is divided into two sections. Down its left side you’ll find the following:
All Apps: Up at the top left of the screen is a “hamburger menu” (three parallel horizontal lines) that when clicked is a toggle for turning on or off a list of all Windows apps and desktop applications, in alphabetical order. (By default, the list is turned on.) Click any to run it.
At the very top of the All Apps list is a list of the apps and applications you use most frequently. Right-click any and you’ll see a list of the files you’ve recently opened in it. Click the file to open the application or app, with the file loaded into it.
In some instances you’ll see a folder with a down arrow next to it rather than an icon — that means there are several options there, for example, to run the Dropbox app or visit the Dropbox website. Click the folder to show all the options, then click the option you want to run. (Also note that in some instances, there will be a folder, but when you click it, you only get one option, to run the app or application.)
Account: Down toward the bottom left of the screen is a set of stacked icons, starting with an icon for your user account. Click it to sign out of Windows, lock your PC or change your account settings. When you choose to change your account settings, you’ll be sent to a screen that lets you change your account picture, your password, and a variety of other settings.
Documents, Pictures, Settings, Power: These icons at the bottom left of the Start menu are no mystery: Documents opens the Documents folder using File Explorer; Pictures opens the Pictures folder using File Explorer; Settings brings you to the Windows Settings app (more on that later); and Power lets you put your PC to sleep, shut it down or restart it. Click any icon to run it.
The right side of the Start menu has tiles for Windows apps and desktop applications. They’re grouped into two Microsoft-created categories — Life at a glance and Play and explore — and then, if you have more apps than fit in those two, they’re grouped into unnamed categories below that. New tiles will be added to the unnamed groups as you install new apps and desktop applications. (Note that if you’re using an enterprise edition of Windows 10, your IT department may have configured other groupings, such as productivity applications or support tools, to appear on the right side of the Start menu.) Click any tile to run the app associated with it.
Note that if you bought a new PC with the Windows 10 May 2019 Update already installed on it, you’ll have a less cluttered Start menu than this. It has only a single column filled with tiles.
Some tiles are “live” — that is, real-time information gets piped into them. So the Mail tile, for example, shows your latest email, the Weather shows the weather and so on. Only Windows apps have live tiles. Desktop applications, such as Microsoft Office, don’t. Each group of tiles is three columns wide, with most tiles taking up one column by default.
The Start menu is highly customizable. To change its height, hover your cursor over its top edge until a two-headed arrow appears, then drag it up or down to expand or shrink it. On some Windows 10 installations you can do the same thing at the right edge of the menu to expand it to the right or shrink it back again, although this doesn’t work for everybody.
To rename a group of tiles, click the group name and type in a new name for it. You can also move tiles around the Start menu by dragging them from one group to another, or, to create a new group, drag tiles to a blank area on the menu. You can name any unnamed group by clicking on the blank area above it and typing in a name.
You can also widen the groups in the Start menu so that tiles take up four columns rather than three. To do it, from the Start menu select Settings > Personalization > Start and in the “Show more tiles on Start” setting, move the slider to On. The tiles will now take up four columns, but to take advantage of the extra space you’ll have to manually drag tiles to the fourth column. You can personalize many other aspects of the Start menu from this Settings page, including whether to show your most used apps, have the Start screen run full screen and more.
When you right-click a tile, a menu pops up. Here’s where things get a bit confusing, because not every Windows app and desktop application has the same pop-up menu, and depending on your installation you might have to click “More” to see some of these options. Most have some combination of these choices:
Unpin from Start: Select this and the tile vanishes from the Start menu.
Resize: As you would expect, this lets you resize the tile. You can choose Small, Medium or Large, and some tiles also have a Wide choice that makes it span two columns in its group.
Turn live tile off: This stops real-time information from streaming into the tile. If it’s already off, you’ll get a Turn live tile on choice.
Pin to taskbar: As it says, this pins the app to the taskbar. If it’s already pinned, you’ll get an Unpin from taskbar choice.
App settings: This leads to a screen that lets you change the app’s settings, such as whether to allow it to run in the background, or to get access to your microphone.
Uninstall: This uninstalls the app. Some Windows apps created by Microsoft, such as Skype and Solitaire, can’t be uninstalled. However, the May 2019 Update lets you uninstall more built-in apps than previously, including Mail, Calendar, Sticky Notes and others.
Rate and review: This option is available only for apps downloaded from the Microsoft Store. It brings you to a page that lets you rate the app on a one-to-five-star basis and write a review. The rating and review appear in the app’s description in the Microsoft Store.
Share: This lets you share a link to the app using a variety of methods, including email, Twitter and others.
Run as an administrator: This lets you run the app or application as an administrator.
Open file location: Opens File Explorer to the folder where the application lives.
Some Windows apps have other choices as well, depending on their purposes. For example, right-click the This PC app and you get choices such as mapping or unmapping a network drive.
You can also right-click the icons for the “Most used” apps on the left side of the menu as well as the File Explorer, Settings and Power icons underneath them. (If you right-click All Apps, no menu appears.) Windows apps and desktop applications on the “Most used” app menu typically have similar choices to those already outlined (with some hidden under the “More” submenu). In addition, you might find these additional options:
Pin to Start: This moves the app from the “Most used” list to the right side of the Start menu.
Run as a different user: This lets you run the app as someone other than the person currently logged in.
Don’t show in this list: Takes the app off the “Most used” list.
Cortana and search
Windows 10 introduces Microsoft’s Siri-like digital assistant Cortana to computers. (It was first introduced on Windows Phones in 2014.) Cortana is a kind of a Jane-of-all-Trades and does everything from searching your computer and the internet for files and information to keeping track of your schedule, alerting you to upcoming events, tracking news and more.
Before the Windows 10 May 2019 Update, Cortana was deeply ingrained into Windows and sprang into action when you typed a search into the Search box on the Start menu, or when you said “Hey, Cortana.” However, with the May 2019 Update, Cortana’s primacy was dialed back considerably. Cortana has been separated from the Search box, and you can now only use it by saying “Hey, Cortana” or clicking the Cortana button to the right of the Search box. (The button is an icon of a circle.) Whichever action you take, though, you’ll have to speak your search request, because you can no longer type your request into Cortana.
To make sure that Cortana responds to “Hey Cortana,” click the Cortana button to the right of the Search box, then select Cortana’s settings by clicking the icon of a gear. From the settings screen that appears, select Talk to Cortana, and in the Hey Cortana section, move the slider to On.
Don’t use Cortana to do garden-variety web searches where you’re looking to find multiple results, or to find files on your PC. Instead, use the Search box for that. (I’ll explain more about that in the next section.) Instead, use Cortana as a digital assistant for specific tasks or highly targeted searches in which you’re looking for a single answer. So, for example, you can say “What movies are playing near me?” or “What’s on my calendar today?” or “What is the US inflation rate?” Cortana will display the results to you in a window, and will read them aloud to you as well.
Getting the most out of Cortana starts with learning how to control it better. To do that, click the Cortana button and use the menu that appears on the left side of the screen, six icons that appear underneath the “hamburger” menu icon of three stacked horizontal lines. The six icons are divided into two sections, three at the top just underneath the hamburger menu, and at three the bottom, just above the search box.
The top icon, Home, navigates you to Cortana’s main interface — what you see when you click the Cortana button. Beneath that is the Notebook icon. Here you can set reminders, create and keep lists, and add what are called “skills” to Cortana, such as controlling your home and its appliances, connecting Cortana to music services such as Spotify, tracking your fitness and more. Below the Notebook icon is the Devices icon. It lets you set up and manage devices that have Cortana built into it, such as speakers.
It’s worth going through all the settings, because part of Cortana’s usefulness is not just answering your questions — it’s sending you news, weather and alerts. After you customize the settings, it can show you the current weather, news you’re interested in, daily events from your calendar and more, depending on what you’ve told it about your interests.
Cortana is tied to your Microsoft ID, so it has the same information about you on all the Windows devices you use, including smartphones. The more you use it on all your devices, the more it learns about you, and the more useful it’ll be. But that means that Microsoft knows more about you as well. So when deciding what to tell it about yourself, you’ll need to find the right balance between Cortana’s usefulness and your privacy.
If you have no plans to use Cortana, or plan to use it only by saying “Hey Cortana” and not using the Cortana button, you can hide the button. Right-click any empty portion of the taskbar and uncheck “Show Cortana button” on the menu that appears to hide it. Right-click an empty portion of the taskbar and check “Show Cortana button” to make the button appear again.
You can also use Cortana to lock Windows, sign out and shut down or turn off your PC. Say things such as, “Hey, Cortana, lock PC,” and it will do your bidding. You can also do all this from the lock screen, without having to log into Windows. And you can do more with Cortana from the lock screen as well, including making notes for yourself, creating reminders asking about your calendar, and so on.
There’s a surprising amount of intelligence built into Cortana. You can, for example, snap a picture of a poster for an event, and Cortana will detect the dates on it and ask if you want to create a reminder to attend it. There’s no documentation for this kind of thing, and behind the scenes Microsoft is continually making Cortana smarter. So your best bet is to experiment and see what new tricks it has up its sleeve.
For more about using Cortana, see “Windows 10 quick tips: Get the most out of Cortana.”
The Windows 10 search you’ve been used to since the operating system was introduced has changed over time, notably with the Windows 10 May 2019 Update in which Cortana and Search went their own ways. So even if you think you know how it works, you might want a refresher, which I’ll provide here.
To do a search, type it into the Search box at the bottom left of the screen. Search uses the Bing search engine to look through your files, your Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage, your videos and music, the apps on your PC, your settings, your email and the web. When you do a search, a series of tabs appears across the top of the screen:
- All displays all search results.
- Apps shows any app-related matches.
- Documents shows documents on your PC that match the search.
- Email shows results from your email.
- Web displays results from the web.
- More shows results from other places, including individual folders and apps including Music, People, Photos, Settings and Videos. You’ll have to click the down arrow next to More to see them all.
Search results are displayed in a flyout panel that appears on the right side of the screen. The panel is essentially a mini-browser with the same information that you’d get if you did a search from inside your browser — photos, links and so on.
The Search box can be quite useful even if you don’t do a search. Put your cursor in it and you’ll see a list of the most recent files you’ve opened as well as the apps you most frequently use. Click a file or app to open it. There’s also a link to the Windows 10 Timeline feature — click Manage history to get to it. (I’ll cover Timeline later in this article.)
Putting your cursor in the search box also lets you do targeted searches — you can limit searches to just apps, documents, email, the web, and more. Click the appropriate tab at the top of the screen and type in your search.
By default, Search only looks through a limited selection of default libraries and folders including OneDrive, Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Desktop. It won’t find files kept in other locations on your PC. However, you can change that. Go to Settings > Search > Searching Windows, and in the “Find My Files” section, select “Enhanced.” That will tell Windows to search through your entire PC. If there are folders you want to exclude from the search, go to the “Excluded Folders” section, then click “Add an excluded folder” and browse to the folder you don’t want to search.