These tips and tricks will make the parts of Win10 that you actually use work better.
Windows 10 — your way
No matter who you are and where you stand on the raging Windows 10 issues, I bet there are some things you love about your new operating system, along with other things you wish were better, had stayed the same, or simply went away.
In this slideshow, I take you through the parts of Win10 that irk me the most, giving you quick tips on how to set things right … or at least, right-er. Your opinion will vary, of course, and if you have other beefs (and solutions!) post them in the comments below or over on AskWoody.com.
You’ll see that I specifically don’t talk about Virtual desktops, Microsoft Edge, Windows Store, or any of the built-in apps. Most of you never use multiple desktops, couldn’t care less about Edge, think of the Store as an annoyance, and have found substitutes for the built-in apps long ago. That’s great. You get it.
I don’t typically spend time futzing with the Windows UI. Win10, though, has one significant interface setting you should know about: Dark mode.
As originally conceived, Win10 settings boxes appeared with black text on a boring white background. With the latest versions of Win10, you can switch your Settings boxes (and other Microsoft apps, including Mail, Calendar, and Windows Store) to show white text on a black background. I vastly prefer it to the old way.
To get the Dark mode, click Settings > Personalization. On the left choose Colors. On the right, scroll down and poke the Dark button under “Choose your app mode.”
Dark mode doesn’t work everywhere — notably, in File Explorer — but to me it makes a big difference when rooting through Win10.
You can poke around the Win10 Personalization applet’s Background and Colors sections and knock yourself out — change accent colors, use a different background picture, and the like. But they’re all pretty pedestrian compared to Dark mode.
Trick out the Start menu
The Win10 Start menu is a mere shadow of the Win7 panoply. Start has actually lost functionality since the original version of Windows 10 in July 2015. If you’re serious about customizing the Start menu, you need to look at third-party alternatives such as Start10 and Classic Shell.
That said, Start has useful options: pinning, resizing, renaming, moving groups, and the like. If you need to refresh your memory, Lowell Heddings and Walter Glenn at How-To Geek step through the myriad details.
Beyond the basics, there are a few settings in the revamped Start menu that I find useful:
- The “Show more tiles” setting makes tiles appear four-abreast in the tile part of the Start menu, instead of three. That’s useful for those with wider monitors.
- The “Occasionally show suggestions in Start” setting only lets Microsoft put advertising in your Start menu. Turn that one off.
- The “Choose which folders appear on Start” link leads to a list of folders that you can plaster in the column on the far left side of your Start menu. For most, it’s unused space that can be put to good use. Personally, I show my Downloads and HomeGroup folder on the far left side of Start (above the Start button), as I refer to them frequently. Clicking on one of the icons brings up File Explorer, rooted in the folder you’ve chosen.
Block forced updates
Few topics raise such ire as the headlong Win10 march toward forced cumulative updating. Microsoft would have you believe that you need to install all of the security patches — and all of the nonsecurity patches — as soon as they’re available, typically on Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of the month), but also on the first Tuesday of the month when nonsecurity Office patches appear, and on any random day of the month when Win10 updates roll out. You can see a full list on the Win10 update history page (screenshot).
Others, including me, say it’s smarter to avoid using Internet Explorer, Edge, and Flash — the target of most Microsoft security patches — and wait a week or two to see whether the cumulative update du jour triggers problems. So far we’ve been relatively lucky. I’ve seen many reports of cumulative updates that refuse to install and quite a number of miscellaneous broken pieces — Start won’t appear, apps crash, settings get clobbered, programs get uninstalled. I have yet to see widespread blue screens and bricked systems that used to accompany Windows patches. People tend to forget, but in December 2014, roughly a quarter of all patches sent out the Automatic Update chute triggered problems.
If you want to block Win10 updates and are using Wi-Fi, tell Microsoft you have a “metered connection” — in other words, you’re paying for internet by the byte. The method’s pretty easy, although instructions vary depending on which version of Win10 you’re using.
If you aren’t using Wi-Fi and have Win10 Pro, there’s a relatively complex method for delaying (but not completely blocking) updates, which again varies depending on the version of Win10 you’re using.
If you have Win10 Home and are connected to the internet via Ethernet, blocking forced updates is considerably more complex, unless you’re willing to switch to Wi-Fi, full time. There’s a full discussion of options and hassles on AskWoody.
Roll back a bad update
If you hit a problem with a specific cumulative update, uninstalling the cumulative update is quite simple:
Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Update & security.
Step 2. On the left, choose Windows Update. On the right, click the link to Update history.
You see a list of all the Windows cumulative updates and other updates (say, for Office, .Net, drivers, and the like).
Step 3. At the top of the list, click the link to Uninstall updates.
Windows Update shows you an old-fashioned Control Panel list of updates, which looks exactly like the list in Windows 7 and 8.1.
Step 4. To uninstall a specific patch, double-click on it. A dialog box appears. Choose Uninstall.
Then there are the major updates — what used to be called Service Packs. Sometimes Microsoft calls them “Feature updates,” but the terminology is confusingly inconsistent. If you jumped from one version of Win10 to another (for example, from Fall Update 1511 to Anniversary Update 1607), you can roll it back providing both the following apply:
You installed the update fewer than 10 days ago
You didn’t delete the backup files (for example, running Disk Cleanup and choosing “Previous Windows installation(s)” will delete the backup files)
Microsoft identifies major versions of Win10 with four-digit numbers (“Version 1607”), while cumulative updates get KB numbers and OS Build numbers (“OS Build 14393.448”). The Win10 Settings app, on the other hand, calls the version jumps an “earlier build.” See the screenshot.
If you use the Win10 Settings app to “Go back to an earlier build,” in fact you’re going back to an earlier version. The terminology is messed up. As of this writing, your primary concern will involve moving from Version 1607 back to Version 1511. By mid-2017, you’ll also likely be concerned with moving from Version 1703 back to 1607.
To revert to an earlier version — not a build — do this:
Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Update & security.
Step 2. On the left, choose Recovery. You see the panel shown in the screenshot.
Step 3. If the option is available (you are within 10 days and haven’t deleted the files) under “Go back to an earlier build,” click Get Started. Follow the instructions and pray.
Whether you roll back a cumulative update or a full version, there’s a gotcha: As soon as you uninstall the update, Win10’s automatic update routine will pick it up as a must-have patch. You need to run wushowhide. See the next slide.
Hide individual updates
Whether you’ve rolled back a cumulative update, gone back to an earlier version of Win10 (see preceding slide), or removed a buggy driver, you must immediately keep Windows Update from re-installing it, as Win10 will uninstall and automatically re-install a patch, typically overnight. The onus is on you to tell Win10 to keep its mitts off.
Step 1. Go to KB 3073930 and download Microsoft’s wushowhide tool. (Click the link marked “Download the ‘Show or hide updates’ troubleshooter package now.”) Drag the downloaded file, Wushowhide.diagcab, to any convenient location.
Step 2. Double-click on Wushowhide.diagcab to run it.
Step 3. This step’s important, and not at all obvious: Click the link marked Advanced. Then uncheck the box marked “Apply repairs automatically.” Click Next.
Step 4. Wushowhide will run for a long time. When it comes up for air, click the link to Hide Updates. You see a list like the one in the screenshot.
Step 5. Check the box next to any updates you don’t want to install. Then click Next.
Wushowhide is an odd bird, with an interface reminiscent of troubleshooters in Windows XP. If wushowhide successfully hid the upgrade/update/patch, you don’t get a confirmation screen. You only see a “Troubleshooting has completed” dialog.
If you want to install a hidden update, follow the above steps but in Step 4 click the link to “Show hidden updates.”
Keep your drivers
Windows 10 has an option to turn off automatic driver updates, but it doesn’t seem to work for all versions of Windows 10. (Type “system” in Cortana’s search box, choose System/Control Panel. Click “Advanced system settings.” On the Hardware tab click Device Installation Settings. Click “No, let me choose what to do.” OK “Back out.”)
In Windows 10 Pro Anniversary Update (Version 1607), there’s a much cleaner way to turn off driver updates:
Step 1. Right-click Start, choose Device Manager. Double-click on the device you want to protect. On the Device tab, choose Class Guid and click on the device driver you want to protect. Choose Copy, then Cancel out of the open dialog boxes.
Step 2. In the Cortana search box type “gpedit.msc” and click to run the Group Policy Editor. On the left, navigate to Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > System > Device Installation > Device Installation Restrictions.
Step 3. On the right, double-click “Prevent installation of devices that match any of these device IDs,” and in the resulting dialog box, choose Enabled. On the left choose Show.
Step 4. In the empty Show Contents box under Value, paste the GUID that you copied in Step 1. See screenshot. Click OK and X out of GPEdit.
That will absolutely, positively keep Windows Update away from your driver.
Check privacy settings
Windows 10 — particularly the Anniversary Update, Version 1607 — has so many privacy settings it’ll make your head spin. Nobody really knows how much data is collected from every Win10 Home and Pro machine.
There was a major change in January 2015, where Microsoft recommended that you do not disable the telemetry service, instead relying on settings in the Settings app, Control Panel, and (presumably) Cortana. Win10 Enterprise plays by different rules.
The result is a hodgepodge of settings, spread all over the place. The Privacy applet in the Settings app (screenshot) alone contains more than 100 settings — and that’s the tip of the iceberg. Stubbing out Cortana is another topic entirely, which I cover in the next slide.
If you want run down this particular rabbit hole, I suggest starting with Preston Gralla’s report in Computerworld, then go through Ed Bott’s recommendations in ZDNet — realizing that Bott’s emphasis is on striking a balance between privacy and functionality.
Throttle Cortana — or not
If you’re running the latest version of Windows 10 — the Anniversary Update, Version 1607 — you can’t exactly turn off Cortana. Sorry, that’s the simple truth. It’s baked into the operating system and can’t be expunged.
As a Microsoft spokesperson told PCWorld: “With the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, the search box is now Cortana. Customers can expect the same great search experience powered by Bing and Microsoft Edge with the added benefit of Cortana’s personality.”
In extensive testing by PKCano and others on AskWoody, I can confirm that nobody’s found a way to turn off Cortana and leave Windows itself functioning properly. You can log out of Cortana, but Cortana — which is an interface built on the Bing search engine — continues even if you’ve disabled the Cortana search box, logged in with a local account, turned off all of “her” scanning abilities, and otherwise stuck a fork in it.
You can, however, limit Cortana to searching for local files, apps, and settings. Sergey Tkachenko on Winaero gives the steps for clipping Cortana’s wings by using the Registry Editor. Martin Brinkmann on GHacks describes the identical setting, using Win10 Pro’s Group Policy editor.
Set up File History
Unless you put all your data — absolutely everything — in the cloud, one of the first steps when setting up a new Win10 PC should involve turning on File History. Windows File History not only backs up your data files, it also backs up many versions of your data files and makes it very easy to retrieve the latest version and multiple earlier versions.
By default, File History takes snapshots of all the files in your libraries (including the Documents, Photos, Music, and Videos libraries), your desktop, your Contacts data, and both Internet Explorer and Edge favorites. It does not take snapshots of anything in OneDrive; that’s the cloud’s duty. The snapshots get taken once an hour and are kept until your backup drive runs out of space.
To use File History, Windows demands that you have an external hard drive, a second hard drive, or a network connection that leads to a hard drive. To get started, either plug a new external drive into your computer and follow the instructions, or go to Start > Settings > Update & security > Backup, and choose “Add a drive.” If Windows can find a suitable backup drive, it’ll be offered; if not, you may have to click “More options,” Use Network Location, then Add Network Location, and point to the drive.
To get at earlier versions of a file, right-click on it and choose Properties > Previous Versions. Windows takes you through a simple interface to find and restore older copies. If you want to restore an entire folder, right-click on the folder and choose Previous Versions. If that isn’t sufficient — say, you deleted an entire folder — File History stores backup copies on the backup drive under FileHistory\username\PC name\Data\The drive you backed up (probably C:)\Users\username. Go find it.
Establish Restore Points
If you’ve set up your system properly, Windows takes snapshots of its settings, or restore points, before you make any major changes to your computer — install a new hardware driver, a new program, or (frequently) the latest Windows update. You can roll back your system settings to any restore point.
A restore point contains Registry entries and copies of certain critical programs, including, notably, drivers and key system files — a snapshot of crucial system settings and programs. When you roll back (or, simply restore) to a restore point, you replace the current settings and programs with the older versions.
Windows 7 created restore points for your system drive (usually C:) by default. Restore points take up space on your hard drive, and Microsoft would rather that you trust its cloud-based recovery options. But restore points can change a gut-wrenching Reset into a relatively easy rollback to an earlier restore point. Windows 10 has full support for System Restore and restore points. Depending on how you installed your copy of Win10, System Protection may or may not be turned on.
To enable System Protection and start taking restore points automatically, follow these easy steps:
Step 1. In the Cortana search box, type “restore point.” Click “Create a restore point.”
Step 2. In the Protection Settings box, look for your important hard drives and make sure they’re set to Protection On. If any aren’t set up, click on the drive, click the box marked Configure, and in the following dialog box, click “Turn on system protection.” Click OK and you’re done.
You can futz with the settings by clicking on the Configure button, but there’s rarely any reason to change the defaults.
Take back your printer
If you find that Windows constantly switches your default printer, it’s undoubtedly driven you nuts.
There’s a simple solution:
Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Devices. On the left, choose Printers & scanners.
Step 2. Scroll down on the right and under “Let Windows manage my default printer,” move the slider to Off. (I have no idea why that’s on by default.)
Customize File Explorer
I like File Explorer and its Quick Access list. I wish it allowed me to open tabs and switch among various locations with a click, but if wishes were horses, then hackers would ride.
You can change folders in the Quick Access list in a nonce. Pin folders with a right-click and choose Pin to Quick Access. Re-arrange them by dragging and dropping. Unpin them with a right-click and Unpin from Quick Access. It may not be immediately obvious, but it’s easy to add folders to the Quick Access list — simply drag them over to the left. Remove them with a right click and Unpin from Quick Access.
Most important, you need to make File Explorer show filename extensions — .docx, .jpg, and so on. Doing so is easy:
Step 1. Down in the taskbar, click on the Files Explorer icon. It’s the one that looks like a file folder, if you’re old enough to have ever seen a file folder. (Don’t laugh.)
Step 2. At the top, click View. See the screenshot.
Step 3. Toward the right of the ribbon, check the box next to “File name extensions.” While you’re at it, check the box next to “Hidden items,” too.
That’s it. Windows — and some other programs — will start showing you filename extensions.
Bonus tip: If you’d rather have File Manager open to This PC — the way it used to, instead of Quick Access — click File, then Options. Under the General tab, change the value for “Open File Explorer” from “Quick Access” to “This PC.”
Take control of files and folders
Sometimes Windows grabs onto a file or folder and won’t let go. Even if you log on with an administrator account, you can’t make changes to some intransigent parts of the file system.
There’s a solution: You need to take control. Don’t take the setting lightly — loosen controls too much and a wayward program could take over your machine — but if you need to get in and change it, there’s a simple way to do so:
Step 1. Start File Explorer. Navigate to the folder or file that you want to control. Right-click on it and choose Properties.
Step 2. In the Properties dialog, on the Security tab, near the bottom click the Advanced button.
Step 3. On the Advanced Security Settings page (see screenshot), next to the name of the Owner, choose change.
Step 4. Click the Advanced button. That brings up a dialog called Select User or Group.
Step 5. Click Find Now. Your user name should appear. Click on it.
Step 6. Click OK, then Apply. You’ll go back to the Advanced Security Settings box, but your name should be at the top.
Step 7. Click OK and you’re done.
At that point you should be able to do whatever you want with the folder or file.
One more big timesaver: Windows 10 Fall Update added a lot of “Windows Hello” options to the login routines. If you have a fancy Hello-capable camera or fingerprint reader, by all means, dig in. But even if your hardware isn’t Hello ready, you can start using a simple numeric PIN to log in, or convert to a picture login. Both have advantages over typed passwords, but I find the PIN to be very convenient.
To set a PIN:
Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Accounts.
Step 2. On the left, choose “Sign-in options.” Under PIN, click the box marked Add. (If you already have a PIN, you get the option to Change or Remove the PIN.)
Step 3. Windows will verify that you know your current password, then prompt you for a four- to six-digit PIN.
A bit of warning: If you are using the Anniversary Update, Version 1607, and are attached to a domain, you don’t have an option to set a PIN. Ash de Zylva on the TechNet blog has a description of the problem and how to fix it.
Switch to a local account
There are myriad reasons for switching from a Microsoft account to a local account — among them, troubleshooting, privacy protection, controlled login in several services. If you log in to Windows with a Microsoft account, Windows keeps track of all sorts of items, logs you in to Microsoft apps like OneDrive, gets Cortana cranking with your history, and generally makes a nuisance of itself.
Microsoft doesn’t want you to use a local account, so it makes the process much more difficult than it should be.
Here’s how to set up a new local account with administrator privileges:
Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Accounts. On the left click “Family & other people.”
Step 2. At the bottom, click the plus sign next to “Add someone else to this PC.”
Step 3. When Windows asks for an email or phone, don’t fall for the trap. Click the link that says “I don’t have this person’s sign-in information.”
Step 4. The second hurdle — in the next dialog box, which says “Let’s create your account,” at the bottom, click the link to “Add a user without a Microsoft account.”
Step 5. You finally see the “Create an account for this PC” dialog box shown in the screenshot. Fill it out, enter a password if you like, and click Next.
You’re sent back to the “Family & other people” screen, and your new account appears near the bottom of the page.
Step 6. Click on that new account, then click “Change account type.” In the resulting drop-down box, choose Administrator. Click OK.
From that point on, you can log on with your new Administrator-enabled local account.
Windows 10 ads come in many forms, and they’re getting more obnoxious. Never mind the tiles for Candy Crush Soda and FarmVille 2 on the Start screen. I’m talking about ads on the lock screen, ads in the Start menu, and little toaster ads admonishing you to try a free trial of Office 365 or use Microsoft’s nifty new Edge browser.
The advertising was bad before the Anniversary Update, Version 1607, and it’s grown worse. The new beta version of Windows 10 has lock screen snippets such as “Don’t forget to pack a Groove Music Pass” and “Tour the world with Microsoft Groove.”
Even Win10 Pro users, who have been able to control some advertising in the past, lost that capability in the Anniversary Update.
Mauro Huculak at Windows Central has an up-to-date list of the advertising settings that can be turned off or at least modified. Follow his advice, but be aware that Microsoft will be rolling out more and more advertising — doubtless coming from different directions — as Windows 10 continues to, uh, improve.
An example: Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet tracked down a new toaster ad for Office 365 users who don’t have locally installed Office 2016 apps. Yes, the advertising onslaught has become that sophisticated.
New in the Win10 Anniversary Update, the Active hours feature lets you tell Windows to not install updates during a specific up-to-12-hour window during each day.
I’ve seen plenty of reports of people who had their machines seized in the paroxysms of a forced update even during Active hours, but those reports seem to reflect bugs in the feature. Expect them to be ironed out, sooner or later, with a forced cumulative update.
Here’s how to set Active hours on your Version 1607 system:
Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Update & security. On the left, choose Windows Update.
Step 2. On the right, click the link to “Change active hours.” You see an Active hours box like the one in the screenshot.
Step 3. Adjust the Start time and End time as you see fit, but note:
The Start-to-End time window must be between 1 and 12 hours
The same Active hours apply for every day of the week
Step 4. Click Save and “X” out of the Settings app.
Under the “Change active hours link” there’s another link for Restart options. That’s where you can set a specific, one-time restart.
Skip the password
As a grizzled Windows fogey, I don’t like to log in unless it’s absolutely necessary. If my machine decides to go to sleep and I wake it up, I figure we can skip the formalities and Windows can lumber back to its original state.
That’s why I set up most of my machines to skip the login when they come back from sleep. Of course, I wouldn’t do this with a machine I’m carrying out into the wild. But most of my machines remain safely in my office, and they don’t need to be shackled. Here’s how to skip the password:
Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Accounts. On the left choose “Sign-in options.”
Step 2. Up at the top, under “Require sign-in” (see screenshot) set the drop-down box to say Never.
Clean up old Windows installation files
When you move from one version of Win10 to another, Windows tucks away a copy of your earlier version of Windows so that you can roll back to it. That copy can take up a lot of disk space. The data is stored in a folder called Windows.old, and it’s very tough to delete Windows.old unless you know the trick.
If there’s any chance you’ll want to roll back to your previous version of Windows, don’t even think about deleting Windows.old. But if you are happy with your new version and need the disk space, you don’t have to wait for Windows to delete it automatically, which happens in 10 days (at least in the current version).
Here’s how to get rid of Windows.old and bring back a lotta space:
Step 1. Down in the Taskbar, click on the File Explorer icon.
Step 2. On the left, navigate to your main hard drive. That’s almost always C:. (You can usually find it under This PC.)
Step 3. Right-click on your main hard drive and choose Properties, then click the Disk Cleanup button.
Step 4. In the Disk Cleanup dialog, click the “Clean up system files” button. The scan may take a while, but ultimately you get a Disk Cleanup dialog like the one in the screenshot.
Step 5. Take a look at the entry for Previous Windows installation(s) — if there is one. If you upgraded recently, there can be a whole lot of dead data sitting in there.
Step 6. If you’re sure you don’t want to roll back to your old version of Windows, check the box marked “Previous Windows installation(s)” and click OK.
Step 7. You get two warnings. Click Delete Files, then click Yes to the second warning.
Poof. Windows.old disappears.
Rid yourself of autorunning junk
No matter how hard you try to dodge the junk, Windows automatically runs certain programs every time you start it. Those programs take a long time to start, and they can do things to your system that you don’t want done.
The Task Manager Startup tab — press Ctrl-Alt-Del, choose Task Manager, click the Startup tab — lists your startup applications, their helper programs, and sometimes problematic programs that use well-known tricks to run every time Windows starts. Unfortunately, really bad programs frequently find ways to squirrel themselves away, so they often don’t appear on this list.
Microsoft distributes a free program called Autoruns that digs in to every cranny of Windows, ferreting out autorunning programs — even Windows programs. It’s a very well-maintained product from the Sysinternals team. To get Autoruns working, download it and run Autoruns.exe or Autoruns64.exe — no installation required.
Autoruns lists an enormous number of autostarting programs. Some appear in the most obscure corners of Windows. The Everything list shown in the screenshot shows every autostarting program in the order they’re run.
Autoruns has many options. You can get an overview on the Microsoft Ask the Performance Team blog. The option I use most is the ability to hide all autostarting Microsoft programs. It’s easy. Choose Options, Filter Options, then select the Hide Microsoft Entries box. The result is a clean list of all the foreign stuff being launched automatically by Windows.
Autoruns can suspend an autostarting program. If you see a program you want to block, deselect the box to the left of the program and reboot Windows. If you zap an autostarting program and your computer doesn’t work right, run Autoruns again and select the box. Easy!
Which programs deserve to die? Any that provide services you don’t want — although I’d recommend against killing any processes from Microsoft. The bad guys go by various names, which change from time to time. Look for the Apple update checker, any utilities you no longer need or want, and perhaps the sync routines for cloud data services you no longer use. I’ve seen leftovers of antivirus programs that had been terminated with extreme prejudice long ago, game program helpers, communication tools for messaging systems long forgotten, and much more.
Written previously posted at Computer World