24 hidden Windows settings to help you compute better

Take over Microsoft's operating system.

Windows has been with us since the mid-1980s. In that time, the operating system has amassed a huge number of features, functions, and settings. But some of them are easy to overlook. So we’re shining a light on 24 hidden ways, from improving security to saving energy, that you can customize your computer.

1. Beef up security

Make sure nobody pokes around your Windows account while you’re away from the computer—even if you’ve only left the machine unattended for a few minutes—by requiring a valid password to access the system. Click the cog icon on the left of the Start menu pane to open Windows Settings. Then choose Accounts and Sign-in options. From the drop-down menu at the top, labeled Require sign-in, select When PC wakes up from sleep.

2. Save energy

By tweaking the amount of time your computer will sit inactive before it dims the screen or goes to sleep, you can save a lot of power. Click the cog icon on the Start menu to launch Settings, select System, then pick Power & sleep. Use the drop-down menus that appear to choose how quickly the screen and the system as a whole should wait before dozing off.

3. Swap default programs

By default, Windows will open individual file types—like JPG for images, MP3 for audio, or PDF for documents—with set programs. For example, it will launch Microsoft Word to access .docx files. To view and change which programs open which files, open Settings via the cog icon on the Start menu. Then click Apps and Default apps. Select any of the file types to make changes.

4. Play discs automatically

Save yourself a click by getting Windows to automatically start playing CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays when you insert them. Click the cog icon on the Start menu to open Settings and hit Devices, followed by AutoPlay. Switch on the AutoPlay option to start playing CDs as soon as you insert them. Then check out the drop-down menus underneath AutoPlay to set up related actions, such as starting a movie when you insert a DVD or importing photos when you plug in a memory card.

5. Hide the taskbar

Want to maximize the available screen space? You can make the taskbar hide from view until the cursor hovers over it, just like the dock on a macOS machine does. Simply right-click on the taskbar, choose Taskbar settings, and turn on the Automatically hide the taskbar in desktop mode option.

6. Find shortcuts

Speaking of the taskbar, look there to find an icon for whatever program you have open on screen. You can right-click on this icon to access quick links and settings for its application. Next time you open your web browser, for example, right-click its icon to view a list of frequently visited sites and access common shortcuts, such as opening a new window.

7. Sleep better

Blue light tells your brain to stay awake, which is why using your computer around bedtime can mess with your sleep. To avoid this problem, Windows comes with a night mode that reduces the blue light your screen emits. To configure it, open Settings (via the cog icon on the Start menu) and choose Display, Night light, and Night light settings. From here, you can manually enable the feature or set it to automatically kick in on a regular schedule.

8. Stop background apps

Running an application in the background allows it to launch in a snap—but if you put too many programs into this state of constant readiness, system performance can suffer. To see which programs have permission to chug along in the background, and revoke that ability if necessary, open Settings (via the cog icon on the Start menu), click Privacy, and then choose Background apps.

9. Prevent Cortana’s eavesdropping

Cortana is always listening to background noise so it won’t miss the “hey Cortana” voice command. Luckily, you can easily deactivate this aspect of Microsoft’s digital assistant. Click on the taskbar’s search box to pull up the assistant. Then click the cog icon on the left and turn off the Let Cortana respond to “Hey Cortana” option.

10. Secure the lock screen

Even if your computer has a password-protected lock screen, it might still display program information that you don’t want passerby to see. So make sure it doesn’t show any potentially-sensitive information. Click the cog icon on the Start menu to open Settings, pick Personalization, and hit Lock screen to control which programs will be able to post updates on the lock screen.

11. Show hidden files

When troubleshooting computer problems or trying to clear room on the hard disk, you may need to view hidden files, such as temporary and system files. Open any File Explorer window, switch to the View tab, and tick the box labelled Hidden items. While you’re exploring this menu, you can also use the tick box directly above Hidden items to hide or show file extensions.

12. Customize File Explorer

When you start File Explorer, it displays the Quick access pane, which lists frequently-visited places and recently-opened files, by default. If you prefer, you can make it show a list of your drives and folders instead. To do so, open the View tab and click Options. Finally, pick This PC from the drop-down menu at the top.

13. Turn anything into a PDF

Windows comes with a handy print-to-PDF feature. Essentially, anything you can print, you can also transform into a PDF file, which is a convenient format that will maintain a page’s layout even if you open it in a variety of applications or computing platforms. Print an item in any application, the print dialog box will appear. Set the printer as Microsoft Print to PDF, click Print, and then you can specify a file name for your new PDF.

14. Avoid unexpected restarts

Windows requires periodic updates to fix bugs and patch security holes. But you don’t want the update process—which is followed by a system restart—to kick in while you’re working on an important task. To schedule when restarts are allowed to occur, open Settings and choose Update & Security, Windows Update, and then Change active hours. Now you can set busy times when you don’t want the system to restart.

15. Disable tablet mode

Many Windows devices can jump between a standard desktop mode and a more touchscreen-friendly tablet mode. If you find this too distracting, you can disable tablet mode. Open Settings, choose System, and then click Tablet mode. From here, scroll down to the second drop-down menu and select Don’t ask me and don’t switch.

16. Clear out junk files

To maintain a healthy computer, your disk needs to retain plenty of free space. Windows can help with this task. To see how full your disks are, open Settings and click Storage. From here, you can also enable the Storage sense option, which lets Windows automatically delete files from the Recycle Bin.

17. Come to the dark (mode) side

Want to customize the look of your Windows display? Switching to dark mode is one of the simplest and most dramatic changes you can make. To apply this setting, right-click on a blank part of the desktop, choose Personalize, and open up the Colors screen. From here, look under Choose your default app mode and select Dark.

18. Adjust individual apps’ volumes

Windows lets you specify different volume levels for different applications, which prevents, for example, a system alert from interrupting your iTunes music. To configure individual levels for each program, open Settings and choose Sound, followed by App volume and device preferences.

19. Share your Wi-Fi

To help friends get online or hook your phone up to a stronger internet connection, you can make your Windows computer act as a mobile hotspot, broadcasting its own Wi-Fi network. To activate the feature and protect your new network with a password, launch Settings, click Network & Internet, and select Mobile hotspot.

20. Silence notifications

By default, Windows will show you as many alerts as possible. To tame this stream of notifications, open Settings via the cog icon on the Start menu, choose System, and select Notifications & actions. From here, you can turn individual applications’ notifications on or off. You can also visit the Quiet hours panel to set periods of time when no alerts are allowed to distract you.

21. Check the battery

Your computer’s ability to run steadily depends on its battery. Luckily, Windows can provide a detailed report on the battery’s health, though it’s not easy to find. Right-click on the Start menu button, choose Command Prompt (Admin), and then, in response to the prompt, type in powercfg /batteryreport /output “C:battery_report.html”. Finally, launch File Explorer and open the C: drive, where you should find the battery health report, saved in HTML format, in the first folder.

22. Doodle over a website

The Microsoft Edge web browser comes built in to your Windows machine, and it brings with it the ability to doodle all over the page. Open Edge, and you’ll see a toolbar on the top right of the page. Click the pen icon on the toolbar, pick your pen type, and then start scribbling. Once you’ve annotated a page, you can share your notes or save them, using the options on the toolbar.

23. Listen to a website

Edge also provides another handy option: It can read sites aloud to you. This is great if you’re multitasking but want to listen to an article in the background, or if you have trouble viewing text on a screen. Open Edge, click the menu button (three dots) on the top right, and select Read aloud to hear the current page. To stop the audio, hit the Esc key.

24. Save passwords

Finally, Microsoft Edge has one more trick up its sleeve: It can remember and securely store your passwords. In addition, Edge can keep track of personal information, such as your preferred shipping address, and use it to automatically fill out forms for you. Open the Microsoft Edge menu (three dots) on the top right, choose Settings, and select View advanced settings. From here, you can enter your information, or click Manage passwords or Manage form entries to view the details that the browser has already saved.