Windows pushes the boundaries of what’s possible on a personal computer, with capabilities like touch input, a voice-based virtual assistant, face login, and mixed reality. The latest released version of Windows 10, called November 2019 Update (or version 1909) includes, according to Microsoft, “performance improvements, enterprise features and quality enhancements.” There’s nothing in the way of goodies or new marquee features. Next year’s updates are expected to bring more exciting features. It may lack shiny new tools, but Microsoft’s OS is already plenty full of cool features.
The latest developments in Windows land involve a totally revamped default browser and the end of support for its long-in-the-tooth grandfather, Windows 7. As of January 14, Windows 7 users will no longer receive updates or support. Why anyone wants to use technology that’s 10 years old is beyond me, but there’s a host of people still running Windows 7. Luckily for them, Windows 10 is an easy upgrade and doesn’t present much of a learning curve, interface-wise.
Also in mid-January, Windows’ default Edge browser is being replaced with completely new software sporting the Chromium rendering engine, along with some unique features like voice-reading of webpages, Collections for web research, and advanced tracking protection. What’s more, the browser won’t just run on Windows 10: There are also versions for Android, iOS, and even macOS.
Earlier Windows 10 features still deserve attention, too, including Cloud Clipboard (a lifesaver if you do lots of copy-and-pasting), Timeline, Focus Assist, Game mode, Dark mode, Nearby Sharing, parental controls, and an updated News app. Your Phone is a relatively new utility that syncs photos, SMS messages—and soon, even voice calls—from Android phones. These join the voice-based digital assistant Cortana, Windows Hello face login, and the other Windows exclusives. Even with all its forward-looking features, the OS remains familiar to longtime Windows users. For intrigued Apple users, I’ve compiled a list of 15 Windows tips for Mac users.
As mentioned, the November 2019 Update brought no new actual features. That wasn’t the case for the May 2019 Update, which added the following:
The previous Window 10 update, called the October 2018 update (or version 1809), added some even more high-profile features. Here are the highlights:
Prior to that release, the April 2018 Update added major new features including Timeline, Focus Assist, Nearby Sharing, 3D modeling, and Cortana Smart Home Control. As with most updates, some less-used features get put out to pasture. Read 6 Things Microsoft Is Killing With the Windows 10 May 2019 Update for details.
Windows 10: A Success Story
With over 900 million installations (according to Microsoft) and is on target to hit a billion users in 2020. Windows 10 now claims over 63 percent of the Windows market (StatCounter), and Windows as a whole has 87 percent of the desktop OS market worldwide (NetMarketShare). By comparison, all versions of Apple’s macOS account for less than 20 percent of U.S. computers and less than half that worldwide. Linux as a whole gets about 2 percent, and Ubuntu and Chrome OS both sit below 1 percent worldwide, whether you look at StatCounter or NetMarketShare numbers.
The newest Windows still runs the vast majority of the millions of existing desktop programs, something competing desktop operating systems can’t boast. Yes, that means it still uses the much-derided Registry to maintain configuration settings, but on today’s fast hardware, that’s no longer much of an issue. Microsoft now recommends against using any third-party registry-optimizing software for Windows 10.
If you’re running Windows 10, getting the latest is a simple matter of running Windows Update, accessible from the Settings app. You should see the text “Feature Update to Windows 10, version 1909.” For more detailed setup info, read How to Download Windows 10. If you don’t see the update in Settings > Update & Security, you can force the issue by heading to the Windows 10 Download page and running the update assistant app. If the update isn’t ready for your PC, the Windows Update page of Settings clearly tells you so.
Windows 10 May 2019 Update is a free upgrade for current Windows 10 PC owners. It’s also preinstalled on all new Windows PCs, but if you’re coming from Windows 7 or earlier and didn’t take advantage of the entire year it was a free upgrade, you can get the software via download or on USB sticks for $139.99 list for Home and $199.99 for Pro. You can easily find less-expensive options through third-party online digital retailers.
Your data and programs come along for the ride when you update from previous Windows versions, though it’s always a good idea to back up your data before an OS upgrade. It’s better to wait for Windows Updates to automatically run the update, rather than forcing it, since Microsoft tries to validate updates for each hardware combination before auto-updating.
Starting with the May 2019 Update, Microsoft increased the minimum hard drive size requirement for Windows 10 to 32GB from 16GB for new installations—still hardly massive by today’s hardware standards. The other system requirements remain surprisingly low: a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM. The 64-bit version of Windows 10 increases the RAM requirement to 2GB. You’ll also need a DirectX 9-capable graphics card and a display with at least 800-by-600 resolution.
Windows 10 is available to most users in just two editions: Home and Pro (with 32-bit and 64-bit options for each). Pro adds business-y things like network domain joining, Hyper-V virtualization, group policy management, and BitLocker encryption. That last one may be of interest to security-conscious personal users, too.
There are, of course, other editions of Windows 10 for special use cases: The Enterprise version of Windows 10 is still an option for large organizations that want bulk licensing deals. Two Education versions target K-12 institutions: Windows 10 Pro Education and Windows 10 Education. And let’s not forget the lightweight edition that powers Internet of Things devices and the Raspberry Pi: Windows 10 IoT Core.
Windows 10 presents almost no learning curve for longtime Windows users, while managing to incorporate many of the advances of Windows 8—faster startup, tablet capability, better notifications, and an app store. Its windowing prowess remains unmatched, letting you easily show the desktop and snap windows to the sides and corner quadrants of the screen.
The Start menu is a differentiator from both macOS and Ubuntu, which have no centralized place for the user to start working with apps, files, search, and settings. Chrome OS has a Launcher tool, but that’s not as far-reaching as Windows’ Start menu. Another differentiator is that programs have their own menus, rather than using the operating system menus along the top of the screen as macOS and Ubuntu do.
Fluent Design, Microsoft’s new design language that uses translucency, blurring, and animation to give helpful visual cues, asserts itself more with each update. One fun Fluent effect is called Acrylic Material, which gives elements like menu bars a semi-transparent look and the appearance of depth when the mouse is over them. It now extends to the Start menu, Settings dialog, and Action Center.
New for the May 2019 Update are a true Light Mode, along with an updated, slicker desktop background logo image. Some icons have been modernized, as well. Notably, the Search box next to the start menu is no longer tied to Cortana with the AI’s icon attached. Now tapping Cortana’s circle icon starts the virtual assistant listening instantly.
Night Light is a favorite interface option of mine. This works similarly to Apple products’ Night Shift, adjusting the colors displayed to reduce the blue part of the spectrum, which has been found to interfere with getting a good night’s sleep. When you turn on Night Light in Settings, it’s enabled from sunset to sunrise by default, but you can change it to hours you specify, or turn it on immediately. Apple Night Shift only offers the last two options. You can even adjust the warmth of the spectrum Night Light uses (see the nearby screenshot).
Another eye-saving feature is Windows 10’s Dark theme, which changes built-in apps’ presentation to a black background with white text. It’s still not quite as all-encompassing as the dark mode in Apple macOS Mojave, but the Windows dark theme now applies to the frequently used File Explorer. Windows dark theme also takes effect in the Start menu, Taskbar, as well as 23 included apps. Oddly, Edge has its own separate setting for light and dark modes.
The Start menu shows the All Apps list without a second button press, and it also shows most used and newly installed apps. I appreciate that you can also set basic folder icons to appear, or not, as you choose. So, for example, you can have icons for File Explorer, Downloads, Documents, and so on appear right above the start button.
Another interface feature I’ve come to cherish is File Explorer’s Quick Access section. This lets you easily find whatever file you were last working on regardless of the application you were using. So, if you edit an image and want to add it to another app, it’s right at the top of the Quick Access list. You never have to remember where you just saved a file to find it quickly. One thing File Explorer lacks is tabbed windows, which both macOS and Linux have.
Unfortunately, design differences between the Settings App and Control Panel remain. For most system settings you use the Settings app, but for deep, technical system options, you go to the Control Panel. Though you can get to deeper settings like Device Manager and Disk Management by right-clicking the Start button, Control Panel’s no longer an option there. Instead, you see it when you perform certain actions like trying to uninstall a legacy program. You can still open it by simply typing “Control” in the Start menu search bar. At this point, most settings that most users will need are in the newer Settings app, but techies still see the old-design control panels.
One feature that uses the older interface language, Disk Cleanup, is being replaced by Storage Sense in the new Settings interface. The new feature automatically removes temp files and downloaded installers. You can run it on-demand using the Clean Now button, have it run automatically when your storage gets low, or set it to run on a schedule.
This feature takes over the Task View, adding the elements of time, showing your activities over the past 30 days. It could indeed save time if you’ve been working in Office 365 or browsing in Edge, but it’s mostly for use with UWP and Microsoft apps at this point. A plus is that, if you using the Microsoft Launcher on your Android phone, you also see activity from that.
At first, I objected to the feature’s combining with the Task View for multiple virtual displays, but have come to the conclusion that it’s clearly designed and well implemented. You can see currently running tasks at the top, and the Timeline entries below that. You can even search for your earlier activity. Recently, Microsoft released a Chrome extension that adds activity from Google’s browser to your Windows 10 Timeline. I’ve been using a Firefox extension that does the same thing for several months.
One of my favorite recent features in Windows 10 is the revamped Windows clipboard lets you access several previously copied items—a convenience that’s long overdue on all computing platforms. You access the list of copied items using Windows Key-V instead of Ctrl-V. Syncing the cloud clipboard means that they’re accessible on other PCs you’re signed in to, and later this will extend to phones via the SwiftKey add-in keyboard. You turn on Cloud Clipboard in a new Settings option. Note that according to Microsoft, “currently, the clipboard history supports plain text, HTML and images less than 1MB.” The Windows-V interface has been made more compact in the May 2019 Update, with the Pin option behind the (…) overflow menu.
Related to the clipboard are new Windows 10 screenshot capabilities. You can now hit Windows key-Shift-S to select a section of the screen that will be sent to the clipboard. Your selection can be a rectangle, a freeform shape, or the full screen. Thankfully, the May 2019 Update adds the ability to take a screenshot that exactly fits a window on-screen, too. When you snap a screenshot this way, a panel appears in the lower-right corner of the screen offering the option to open the image in the new app.
The new Snip & Sketch app lets you mark up and share your snipping—it even lets you clip a non-rectangular shape and draw circle sections with a protractor. You can crop screenshots, but there’s unfortunately no aspect ratio option in the crop tool—so you can’t designate a square or standard widescreen (16-by-9) crop. Nor are there basic image adjusters for things like brightness and color or a text tool like that in macOS’s screenshot editor.
Another very useful screenshot feature ties in with OneDrive, which you can set to store images when you tap the PrintScreen key for full screen capture or Alt-PrintScreen for the window in focus. This saves you the steps of going from the clipboard to image file saving in some image editor, such as Paint. For a full rundown on this frequently needed function, read How to Take Screenshots in Windows 10.
The Settings app includes a Phone section, which lets you integrate your Android or iOS device with your PC. The Continue on PC app lets any browser on iOS or Android open a webpage immediately on a Windows 10 PC, or to create a notification in the Action Center with the link. For tips on how to get started with this feature, read Sync Your Smartphone to Windows 10 With Continue on PC.
And that’s just the start. Using the iOS or Android version of the Edge browser provides even more integration. The next step, Your Phone, is the topic of my next section.
The Your Phone app lets you see and even drag-and-drop photos from your phone, and engage in SMS text messaging on a connected phone from the PC. You enable these by installing the Your Phone Companion app on the mobile. The catch is that this only works with Android, for now. Microsoft is working with Apple to try to get the same integration on iPhones, but I wouldn’t hold my breath, given the tight grip Apple keeps on its platforms.
Next up is access to your Timeline from the phone. This is available in preview, which you can enable on the Play Store’s entry for the Microsoft Launcher. Microsoft’s goal with all this is to make your mobile devices smarter by tapping into its cloud services, using what the company calls the Microsoft Graph. This includes data from Office 365, LinkedIn, and that gathered by its Bing search service, which crawls the entire web.
Mobile-connected PCs are also an option, with new models powered by Qualcomm CPUs as the latest examples. For these, Windows includes Messaging and Mobile Plans apps.
The included Photos app is not only a decent photo editor, but it also edits videos and supports mixed reality objects. It’s dressed in the slick Fluent Design System look, with a translucent window. It also has an AI-powered search function, which means you can type things like “dog” or “mountain” and see results containing those items in your photo collection.
Photos lets you import media from any device or folder, and can display raw camera files from popular formats like Canon’s .CR2, Nikon’s .NEF, and Sony’s .ARW. (For the latest raw support, you need to install the Raw Image Extension, available in Windows’ app store) You can organize your photos into albums, apply automatic photo editing fixes like red-eye correction, lighting, and color, as well as add Instagram-like filters. The app’s interface uses slider bars for easy touch input, and lets you draw on photos and videos.
Photos creates automatic galleries for you based on photos taken at a similar time and place, picking the best of similar photos to include. Its face-recognition and can group all the shots of one person, and finally lets you associate names with the faces.
To automatically create a video with the option to Remix it, tap the Create button and then choose Automatic video with music. From an individual image’s Edit & Create button, you can choose Create a video with music. This lets you select two or more photos or clips and join them, apply titles, crops, filter effects and add fitting background music and titles. When I created a movie based on a recent weekend trip, the video’s recipients were impressed with the results.
The video editing interface is storyboard based, meaning it doesn’t use timeline tracks. You can drag the thumbnails back and forward in the sequence to reorder them, and you can trim individual video clips. A very cool extra is that you can apply 3D effects, and even anchor them to an object in your video with motion tracking. You can use the included mood music or your own tracks. If you choose the former, transitions are timed to the beats.
In the automatic video choice, you can designate someone in your video as the Star. The program identifies faces in the video clips and photos, and it lets you choose one to highlight. It then creates a video in which that person is the most important element.
The My People feature lets you pin contacts to the Taskbar for easy communication via email, Skype, or whatever communication apps later support it. You can drag files to the friend’s icon to share files with them, read or send email or Skype messages without opening separate apps. But the most fun part of it happens when you send an emoticon in a Skype chat: The smiley pops up from the user icon and animates with a large winking character, for example, or whatever emotion is being shared.
In the April 2018 Update, My People got some Fluent design, and now lets you add more contacts than the first release—now you can add up to 10. Still, I wish that more messaging apps supported My People—the lack of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger support makes it less useful than it might be.
Note that Microsoft has sounded the death knell for the My People feature in its release notes for version 1909. According to those, “My People is no longer being developed. It may be removed in a future update.” To be honest, I wanted to like this feature, and Microsoft watchers were full of anticipation for it, but it’s been pretty much of a dud, perhaps largely to the lack of support for other chat services.
Cortana, Windows’ voice-responsive AI digital assistant, is one of Windows 10’s highest-profile features. The intelligent voice assistant predates Apple’s Siri on the Mac by over a year. You can even turn off, restart, lock, or log out of your PC using your voice—things you still can’t do with Siri without workarounds. There’s a confirmation step, so don’t worry about shutting down unexpectedly. I find this a great convenience at the end of the day, when I just want to tell the computer to shut down, rather than tap more keys.
With the May 2019 Update, Cortana is divorced from the Windows search bar, but now they’re next-door neighbors. Tap the circle next to the system’s search box (which covers local documents, apps, settings, photos, and web), and Cortana will start listening, similarly to Siri on a Mac. You can now completely remove Cortana from the taskbar if you prefer.
Cortana’s Notebook, which is where you specify your interests so that you’ll be notified about what matters to you, has added a few more categories, including On the Go, which pops up suggestions for when you arrive at work or home. Unlike Siri or Google Now, Cortana lets you specify exactly what the assistant knows about you—interests, important people, locations—and you choose whether to have her respond to your spoken “Hey Cortana,” or whether you want to use the feature at all.
Cortana Reminders can be based on Place, Person, or Time, but they don’t have to be. Sometimes you just want to be reminded of something without having to specify any of those. That kind of reminder shows up in Cortana’s Whenever group.
You can use Cortana from the lock screen—useful for things like playing a music playlist, asking about the weather, or asking for points of information. Intel’s wake-on-voice technology allows you to say “Hey Cortana!” and have the PC respond even if it’s in sleep mode.
Cortana is sort of like an Amazon Echo, but without the need for a separate device. Dedicated Cortana speakers like the Harman Kardon Invoke let you use Microsoft’s assistant without a PC. An icon in the Cortana sidebar, that looks like the Invoke speaker itself, makes setting up such devices a snap. It also lets you set up an Amazon Alexa-based smart speaker. Cortana has skills that let you control smart home devices like Philips Hue lightbulbs.
More smart home integrations come to Cortana all the time: ecobee, Honeywell, Nest, and Wink are now supported. To access these, go to Cortana’s Notebook, choose the Manage Skills tab, and click Connected Home. Support for IFTTT lets it tie into even more smart home devices and web services using what it now calls applets formerly called (recipes).
Cortana Reminders is also a share target, accessible from the share button in a Universal Windows app. For example, if you’re in the Edge web browser, you can hit the Share button, choose Cortana Reminders, and attach the site URL to the reminder. If you do this from the Photos app, the picture is included in the reminder.
Cortana can scan your Outlook.com or Office 365 email for phrases like “I’ll get you the report by the end of the day,” and suggest a reminder. It’s a completely opt-in feature, and you have to add Outlook.com or Office 365 as a connected service in Cortana’s Notebook. Another capability is Pick Up Where I Left Off, in which Cortana offers to resume all the activities from your last session, such as websites open and documents you’re working on.
Microsoft has moved some info that used to live in the Cortana panel over to the Action Center. I’m not really a fan of this, since I can’t quickly check my sports and stocks with Cortana anymore. Instead I have to wait for them to appear in the Action Center.
Touch and pen input support is a major differentiator between Windows 10 and Apple’s macOS. Apple sticks with Steve Job’s edict that touch screens don’t make sense on laptops and desktops, but a touch screen is the most intuitive interface type possible. You see something you want to interact with, such as a button, and you can press it with your finger. Chrome OS supports both touch and stylus input, though that support is not as far-reaching through the operating system as it is in Windows 10.
In using a Surface Book and an Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IC all-in-one PC (both of which have touch screens) for the past year or so, I’ve gotten to the point of trying to tap buttons on computers with non-touch screens out of habit. Ubuntu offers some touch support, but it can be hit-or-miss based on the computer you’re running.
Windows’ digital ink capabilities allow stylus input to work just like a pen or pencil, converting it to text. This is a technologically cool feature, but it will only be of interest to owners of tablets and convertibles like the Surface Pro, the Surface Book, or the Surface Go. The Windows Ink Workspace offers sticky notes (with extra smarts), as well as Sketchpad and Screen Sketch options. It also shows recent apps you’ve penned in and suggests pen-friendly apps in the Store. The April 2018 Update added a Tap to Ink feature that lets you instantly start writing in any text field. It also reduces inking latency by 30 to 50 percent. You can turn off the feature’s icon if you don’t expect to use it.
The Ink Workspace can be summoned by clicking a stylus button. You can also take advantage of some Cortana smarts in Sticky Notes. For example, if you write “Wednesday,” the text is turned to a blue link, and clicking this gives you the option to set a Cortana reminder. I actually had better luck getting Cortana to notice flight information when I typed it in the note, rather than penning it, however. Info on flight status for such notes appears at the bottom of the sticky. New for Sticky Note is a web view, at onenote.com/stickynotes.
Sketchpad offers ballpoint pen, pencil, highlighter, eraser, ruler, and touch writing tools. Sketchpad resembles the whiteboard app on the Surface Hub. It also lets you crop the image, copy it, and share it to any Universal Windows app in the share sidebar. A ruler tool lets you draw perfectly straight lines, and even includes a compass. Double-clicking the pen button or choosing Screen Sketch from the Ink Workspace snaps a screenshot of your desktop and opens it in Sketchpad so you can annotate and draw on top of it with any of the aforementioned tools.
One of the coolest inking capabilities is the pen keyboard. You switch to this mode from the standard on-screen keyboard (or by tapping in a text box with the stylus point). Start writing on the line there, and text predictions show up. Hit Enter, and your writing turns into text in whatever text area you’re writing in. It does surprisingly well with even poor penmanship, and striking through your writing deletes it easily.
For comparison, since Apple’s macOS doesn’t support pen input directly, the company has a clever strategy set to appear in macOS Catalina: Let Mac owners use their iPad for pen and touch input. The system will send the input from the iPad directly to the Mac. Of course, it also means shelling out several hundred dollars for a separate touch-capable device.
Aside from pen input in the on-screen keyboard, you can swipe text on touch-screen PCs, à la the mobile SwiftKey keyboard. In fact, the same machine-learning SwiftKey technology appears in the Windows version of the on-screen touch keyboard, meaning it can learn your writing style and vocabulary.
If you want to type without touching anything, the on-screen keyboard shows a microphone, invoked with Windows Key–H (for hear) lets you use voice dictation in anything on your PC that accepts text input.
Apple has long offered a way to get photos and other content to a nearby iPhone or Mac, with AirDrop. Now Windows 10’s Nearby Sharing feature lets us Windows users do the same. The feature uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and you have to enable it. That’s easy, since the option to do so appears the first time you use any app’s Share button. As with AirPlay, when you send something, a notification pops up on the recipient’s device.
The Edge web browser that comes with Windows 10 is fast and standards-compatible, and it offers unique tools like Set Aside Tabs, Web Notes (for marking up and sharing webpages), a clean (ad-free) Reading mode, and a built-in Cortana search sidebar via right-click. The e-book reader and store functions once included with the browser have been discontinued as of July 2019.
The browser will continue to offer unique features, but Microsoft announced that Edge will be based on Google’s Chromium open-source browser project (the same one Google Chrome uses), with a target launch date of January 15, 2020. This should result in more site compatibility, but I’m concerned that it will further consolidate Google’s ownership of the Internet, since the search ad giant controls the Chromium project. One side-benefit to Microsoft’s move is that it plans to offer Edge for macOS and older Windows versions as well as Windows 10. You can download the beta of this new browser project at the Edge Insider site.
Edge remains the only browser with support for 4K UHD Netflix streaming, and this is expected to continue after the engine overhaul. I can only hope that most of the unique tools detailed below make it into the new version.
The browser can silence noisy tabs with a click on the speaker icon that appears in any tab issuing sound. You can also silence auto-play videos and music. Edge will autofill online payment forms with secure information, print webpages without all the unessential clutter, and display PDFs in full screen.
Edge’s Extensions menu option links to the Windows app store, from which you can get Edge extensions. I tested by installing one I consider essential—LastPass. There are also extensions for Amazon, Evernote, Microsoft Translator, OneNote, Pinterest, Pocket, and more. These should make the browser appealing to more demanding users. There are now over 200 extensions as I write this, though Firefox and Chrome offer thousands. Happily, some strong privacy and ad-blocking extensions are available, including AdGuard and uBlock Origin. (AdBlock and Adblock Plus are also in the store, but I find those less effective.)
Unlike most browsers’ extensions, Edge’s appear by default in the overflow menu rather than next to the address bar, but you can add their icons to the toolbar with a Settings option. The LastPass extension worked just as in other browsers. LastPass’s on-page features, such as automatic password fill-in, also worked well via the extension.
Tablet and touch-screen users will appreciate Edge’s swipe gestures, which let you go back and forth in history, and desktop users will appreciate that right-clicking the back button drops down tab history, as most browsers do. I also appreciate that Edge, like other browsers, offers a Paste-and-go option and the ability to pin tabs. You can also pin webpages to the Taskbar or Start menu. But you still can’t set a web image as your desktop background from the browser, as you can in Firefox.
Microsoft has done quite a bit with tabs in Edge, particularly helpful to those who keep lots of tabs open. Set Tabs Aside is a key feature for this. The browser already showed thumbnail previews of your site tabs when you hover over them with the mouse, but a down-caret button lets you show all the preview thumbs at once for easy skim-ability.
A Windows 10 feature with roots in mobile operating systems is the Action Center. While previous versions of Windows included something also called Action Center, this one is more like a smartphone’s notifications plus quick action features. In fact, that’s exactly what it is.
The Windows 10 Action Center, similar to Apple macOS’s Notification Center, keeps those messages available in a right-side panel. You open Windows 10’s Action Center panel from a taskbar button, or on touch screens with a swipe in from the right edge of the screen.
The panel also offers buttons for frequently needed functions like power, settings, networking, and screen brightness and rotation. Brightness gets a big boost in the May 2019 Update: Instead of tapping through Suggested, Brighter, and so on, now you get a slider to lower and raise the screen brightness. The Connect action is pretty neat, in that it lets you project your screen onto another one on your Wi-Fi network. I was able to display my Surface Pro’s screen on a big Samsung TV with no setup aside from choosing OK on the TV—pretty nifty.
Focus Assist is accessible by right-clicking on the Action Center icon or by using its Quick Action button. You can set it to allow Priority contacts to get through to you, or to only let alarms work. In the Settings app, you designate who can break through and specify times you want focus. You can even enable the feature while you’re gaming on your PC.
Why do you need an app store on your PC? Mac users have had one for several years, and it offers the advantages of automatic updating and a single source for finding programs you need. It gives you access on all your PCs to apps you’ve bought. Acceptance to the Windows Store also means an app has been vetted by Microsoft for security. You can even install apps to external memory—something tablet users can appreciate.
For Windows 10, there are even more advantages for these modern apps: They can tie in with the notifications and share panels. For example, if you use the Facebook app rather than going to the Facebook website, you can see notifications for new messages and you can send shareable content via the app.
Windows 10 Store apps are called Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps, meaning they can run on desktops, tablets, phones, the Surface Hub, and eventually on the Xbox and Microsoft HoloLens 3D augmented-reality headset. Modern Microsoft Store apps (aka UWP—Universal Windows Apps) don’t come with any Registry baggage.
That’s partly why Microsoft delivered Windows 10 S (now considered a Mode rather than an separate OS version), which only runs Windows Store apps. According to the official Windows Blog, going forward, “customers can choose to buy a new Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro PC with S mode enabled, and commercial customers will be able to deploy Windows 10 Enterprise with S mode enabled.”
Underneath these apps is Windows 10’s OneCore platform, a common base that underlies all these device types and allows not only apps, but also device drivers to work with them. UWP apps have one final benefit: They run within containers so that they don’t mess with the rest of your system.
You get a surprisingly full kit of apps with Windows 10. Utilities like Calculator, Camera, Paint 3D, and Voice Recorder are joined by information apps like Maps, News, and Weather. In all, I counted 23 such stock apps and utilities. News has a clean design, customizable topics and sources, and a nifty dark view. The Windows app also syncs with matching mobile versions for iOS and Android. As mentioned above, with the May 2019 Update, you can now uninstall 17 of these apps that used to be mandatory. Not everyone needs the Print 3D app taking up system space. Also arriving with that update are new Notepad options and shortcuts.
The included Mail app is getting smarter, with things like Focused Inbox. This is a great feature that’s already implemented in the Outlook for iPhone and Android apps. It filters out all the newsletters and promotions, and only shows you mail from those with whom you regularly correspond, or that is in some other way deemed important by the service. You can of course still see everything else at the tap of a tab, and turn off this focusing for mail you don’t want it. You can also use @ signs in an email body to add them to the conversation. Still, the app isn’t as powerful as the Office 365 desktop version and still has some quirks, though I must admit that it’s now good enough to be my everyday work email client.
The Mail app is integrated with Calendar and Contact apps, available from buttons along the bottom of Mail. Calendar does a presentable job of handling multiple calendars, appointments, and views. The Calendar includes color-coding for event categories, public calendar subscriptions for shows and sports, and cards for deliveries and travel reservations. The cards for travel reservations even have links to online check-in services. Unfortunately, you still cannot create mailing groups in Mail or People and cannot export contacts from the People app.
The Groove Music app can play music sitting on your hard drive or in your OneDrive cloud storage. Impressively, Groove can play FLAC lossless audio, and even includes an equalizer.
Another included app is Movies & TV, which also offers a content store as well as the ability to play your own videos. The Compact Overlay option lets you have a small, always-on-top window showing video while you do other things on your PC.
You still get lots of utility-type apps, too, including a scanner app, alarms, and a voice recorder.
The impressive Maps app lets you use Windows Ink to mark up a map using a stylus or your finger on a touch-screen PC. But that’s not all: You can calculate the distance of a line you draw on a map and get directions for any two points you tap. If you don’t have a touch screen, the same functionality is possible with a mouse. You can also use a virtual on-screen ruler to make your lines straight. The app has tabs for multiple location searches and directions.
For basic image editing, that old standby, Paint, moves to the Windows Store. Its replacement, the Paint 3D, is the default. Not only does it let you create, customize, and decorate 3D objects, but you can also share them with the Remix3D.com online community. You can even show your 3D creations mixed with real-world backgrounds using the PC’s camera. 2D image editing isn’t forgetting in the app, despite the name; it slickly handles standard JPG, PNG, and TIFF editing.
The 3D Viewer (formerly called Mixed Reality Viewer) is an included app that will play a central role in Microsoft’s VR strategy along with HoloLens and lower-cost headsets. Along with that, the viewer app can show your 3D creations as part of the real world, using your webcam. You can even anchor an object to a surface, such as your shoulder!
For the techies, an updated Terminal app is now available. According to a Microsoft blog, “Windows Terminal is a new, modern, fast, efficient, powerful, and productive terminal application for users of command-line tools and shells like Command Prompt, PowerShell, and WSL.” You can get the app from the Microsoft Store app store.
Two of Microsoft’s cloud services—OneDrive for online storage and syncing and Skype for communication—play an increasingly prominent role in Windows 10. There’s an important distinction between these and Apple’s analogous iCloud for macOS: They can be used on any platform. There are Skype and OneDrive apps for Macs, Androids, and iOS devices, as well as for Windows devices.
OneDrive Files On-Demand spares you from downloading everything to all PCs in your account; instead, the OneDrive folder shows everything, but files that are only in the cloud show a cloud icon in the status column in File Explorer. While OneDrive does a great job syncing Office documents and personalization settings, and Skype is a very rich communication tool, there’s still some work for Microsoft to do in integrating them with Windows 10. You can finally share from Photos to OneDrive, but only if you install the OneDrive UWP app. OneDrive still boasts the very useful Fetch capability: If you enable this, you can browse any folders remotely form OneDrive’s web interface.
OneDrive lets you back up and sync the Desktop, Documents, and Photos user folders automatically. You still can’t designate any folder on the system for backup, as you can with Google Drive or SugarSync, but those folders contain most of what people want to protect. OneDrive’s new Personal Vault feature rolled out to all users in October 2019. It uses strong encryption to safeguard your most sensitive files. You need to authenticate your account to open the folder. According to Microsoft’s post, “Personal Vault adds to the robust privacy and security that OneDrive currently offers, including file encryption at rest and in transit, suspicious activity monitoring, ransomware detection and recovery, mass file deletion notification and recovery, virus scanning on download for known threats, and version history for all file types.”
The UWP Skype app is finally fully baked. You can directly reply to Skype messages inside Action Center, which happily saves you from opening yet another app. Windows has the potential for parity with macOS’s Messaging and Facetime apps, but it’s not there yet. The Mac solution is still more seamless, but Windows 10 is getting closer, with an SMS relay option for Android via the Cortana app. Also keep in mind that Skype is a full, standalone VoIP solution that can call standard phones, while the Mac is just hooking into the iPhone’s mobile connection and requires proximity of the phone. Like OneDrive, Skype works on all major platforms, not just one.
Tablet mode is a trimmed down, more touch-friendly version of the OS, with a full-screen tile-based Start screen. After you pull off the keyboard from a tablet, such as the Surface Pro, or convert a convertible laptop to tablet mode (often by bending the screen backwards), Windows pops up a message asking if you want to switch to Tablet mode, in which the Start menu and modern apps become full-screen.
Touch gestures like closing an app by swiping down from the top of the screen work in this mode, and the All Apps view stretches across the screen with large tiles so it’s easier to get to any app. Personally, I find using tablet mode on a Surface Go seamless. Swiping in from the sides to get the Start menu and Action Center is especially convenient, as are the big tiles to start apps.
Gaming is one area where Windows is miles ahead of macOS or Ubuntu. And Microsoft continues to make the Window 10 proposition sweeter for gamers. The Xbox app for Windows 10 not only lets them see an activity feed, but it also includes game DVR and can even stream games from an Xbox One to the PC. You can also stream games publicly on Microsoft’s Twitch competitor, Mixer.com.
The Xbox and Windows 10 Stores have been unified, and the Play Anywhere initiative means you can buy games for one platform and play them either on the console or the PC. Game progress stays in sync between platforms. Play Anywhere games have begun to appear, and the list has grown since I last checked, now at 44 titles with 5 more “coming soon.” Notable entries are Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 4, Killer Instinct, ReCore, and Resident Evil. You can keep up with the list on the Xbox Play Anywhere page.
If you’re more of a VR and Steam person, Mixed Reality for Steam VR is now fully released. You now have two home bases for your Mixed Reality virtual environments: SkyLoft joins Cliff House as an option. There are more than 2,000 VR titles in the Steam VR library, and you now have a half dozen mixed reality headsets to choose from, from the likes of Samsung, Acer, and Dell.
Beyond the Xbox app, Windows 10’s 3D video engine is DirectX 12, which, according to some game developers, could open up a whole new level of realism to games. And Windows 10 lets you turn off VSync and instead enable AMD’s Freesync and Nvidia’s G-Sync in Universal Windows Platform (UWP) games and apps. The same update also unlocked frame rates for UWP games. You can read more about what Freesync, G-Sync and unlocked frame rates mean for Windows 10 on our sister site, Extreme Tech.
The October 2018 Windows update added support for DirectX ray tracing, a capability found in recent Nvidia graphics cards. This allows for real-time calculation of shadows and reflections, for more performant and realistic game scenes.
The Windows 10 Game Bar (invoked with Windows key-G) lets you enter Game Mode on demand, start streaming to Mixer.com, and DVR recording, and use audio controls. It’s now it’s a full-fledged app that you can also launch from the Start menu. With the May 2019 Update, the Game Bar makes getting to your captures easier, with a button that takes you to the capture file location.
The OS’s Game Mode moves system resources away from background tasks towards the game you’re playing. You can also control this and other gaming features in the dedicated Gaming section of Settings. The game-broadcasting capability of Mixer.com boasts sub-1-second latency, for much tighter communication with your audience. It also lets users create their own Arena gamer tournaments on Xbox Live, in support of the burgeoning esports craze.
Not sure which game to play? Choose some from the group of first-rate titles in our Best PC Games feature.
When setting up a Windows 10 account, you can set up a local account without the need for a Microsoft account, but you lose many of the OS’s best features if you do so. Many critics have nevertheless called out Microsoft for harvesting usage data by default, so the company has clarified privacy choices at setup. Moreover, a Privacy Dashboard lets you see and manage any data saved in your Microsoft account. For details, read Windows 10: How to Protect Your Privacy.
The October 2018 Update renamed the Windows Defender Security Center to simply Windows Security. It also gets an added page showing third-party security software you’ve installed, made the Current Threats section more accessible, and lets you allow apps to access controlled folders (part of the system’s ransomware protection).
The built-in antivirus in Windows 10 have greatly improved over the last few versions, even getting full marks on the latest AV-Test evaluations. Nevertheless, PCMag’s security guru, Neil J. Rubenking, still recommends third-party security software for optimal protection, since it deals with more than just viruses.
IT staff can benefit from Windows 10’s enhanced Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (Windows Defender ATP), which prevents and monitors new indicators of attacks. For consumers, the Security Settings panel offers an option for protection against ransomware, with the Controlled folder access option. It also includes exploit protection, with features like Data Execution Prevention and Mandatory ASLR, both of which are beyond our scope here.
Windows Defender Application Guard protection is available to Windows 10 Pro users; this can stave off even sophisticated, targeted attacks. Windows Defender can schedule regular system scans and shows notifications about threats. As of the latest update, right-clicking Defender’s system tray icon offers options to scan for viruses, update virus definitions, and more.
The Dynamic Lock feature lets you log off based on the proximity of your Bluetooth-paired smartphone, using Dynamic Lock. I tried this with a Surface Book and my iPhone X. After I walked about 50 paces away, sure enough, the Surface switched to lock-screen mode. This is a security feature, since it only logs you off when you’re away, not on when you come near.
Like Firefox, Edge now blocks Flash from running unless you green-light it by tapping a puzzle-piece icon. You can choose to always allow Flash, too, but why not take advantage of that extra measure of protection?
You can also enhance your privacy and security by installing VPN software. This encrypts your data and hides your IP address from intruders. It also prevents your own internet service provider from collecting your browsing data to profile you. For instructions on how to set up a VPN, see How to Set Up and Use a VPN.
Parental control in Windows 10 benefits from recent updates. Family settings like site blocking now take effect across Windows, Xbox, and mobile Microsoft apps such as its Android Launcher and Edge browser. The tools also let parents limit spending on the Xbox and Windows stores, as well as restrict and monitor screen time.
Windows Hello biometric authentication is supported on PCs equipped with a 3D and IR camera like the Intel RealSense devices. You can also use third-party biometric login devices, such as the Eidon Mini fingerprint reader, and a wristband from Nymi that identifies you by your unique heartbeat signature. One device I’ve had excellent Hello success with is the Logitech Brio 4K webcam. With the latest update, you can set up Hello from the lock screen.
On the software side, Windows Universal Apps and websites you browse in Edge can also use Hello for authentication, similar to identifying yourself on an iPhone or Apple Watch with Apple’s TouchID. Apps that support Hello include Dropbox and iHeartRadio.
At the 2019 Build and Computex trade shows, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and other company execs held out a vision for a modern, person-centric OS that overleaps the bounds of traditional PCs. It seems to be a service-based, always-connected platform relying on the company’s Azure cloud and AI computing platform. At present, it’s at the vision phase. There’s also been a lot of talk among Windows watchers about “Windows Lite” and “Windows Core.” These are purportedly upcoming slimmed down and modular versions of the OS, respectively. Microsoft itself has been mum on these developments, however.
We did learn about a radical new Windows offering: Windows 10X. This will run on two-screen devices like the upcoming Surface Neo, as well as devices from ASUS, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. The OS will still be Windows 10 underneath, but customized for two-screen experiences. The software and devices are expected to ship in the fall of 2020.
Those interested in what the future holds for the OS are more privileged than fans of just about any other software: They can join the Windows Insider Program and experience the features coming to future updates months before they’re released. You can sign up for Fast or Slow preview release channels, with the first option being less stable that the latter. This Flight Hub page tells you exactly what features are included in each channel.
For the 20H1 (first half of 2020) update, the latest preview features include Android screen mirroring, a revamped Protection History interface in Security settings, and password-less account setup using mobile numbers. Also new is integration between Cortana, ToDo, and Outlook, to streamline task creation and visibility. Cortana will also provide Windows support when you say something like “Cortana, show me how to change my display settings.”
Based on Insider builds, 20H1 will include smarter File Explorer search, which will suggest likely hits. It will also get accessibility updates, and more language support for dictation, including “English (Canada), English (UK), English (Australia), English (India), French (France), French (Canada), German (Germany), Italian (Italy), Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Mexico), Portuguese (Brazil), and Chinese (Simplified, China).”
Because of Windows 10’s software-as-a-service approach, new features occasionally show up in between the major updates, so features can show up when they’re ready, even if it’s between major releases. Good examples to date have included Fluent Design’s appearance in several stock apps, updated Family controls, and new Photos app features.
Whether you’re using your voice with Cortana, gesturing on a touch screen, writing with a digital pen, building a 3D model, or playing a PC game, Windows 10 offers a wealth of choices. The platform offers the most choice in form factors, too, from the tiny Raspberry Pi to massive gaming PCs to the large Surface Studio to the giant Surface Hub. Add to those completely new Windows devices like HoloLens, Mixed Reality headsets, and the Harman/Kardon Invoke smart speaker. Windows 10’s only device weakness is the defunct Windows Mobile ecosystem, though there are more and more integrations available for iOS and Android devices, including the Your Phone app, along with Edge, Office, OneDrive, and Skype mobile apps for those platforms.
Windows 10 is familiar, innovative, and adaptable to the size and capabilities of the hardware on which it’s running. Because it manages to include so much exciting new technology while remaining familiar and intuitive, Windows 10 earns PCMag’s Editors’ Choice endorsement, an honor it shares with the polished and impressive macOS. For a comparison of the two, you can read macOS vs. Windows: Which OS Is Best?