16 useful Windows 10 tools that help you get more done

Microsoft has stuffed Windows 10 full of productivity-enhancing tools and features that streamline common pain points.

windows 10 working
Adam Patrick Murray

Getting more done

None of us like wasting time when we’re trying to get stuff done. Every second spent shuffling around open windows or navigating menus is precious time not spent achieving your goals. Fortunately, Microsoft stuffed Windows with all sorts of secretly powerful tools, as we’ve covered in-depth in both 17 obscure Windows tools and tricks too powerful to overlook and 15 simple, secret Windows tips and tricks designed to save you time.

Fear not! All of those tips still work. But Microsoft managed to sneak even more productivity-enhancing goodies into every nook and cranny of Windows 10. Then the sweeping Anniversary Update added even more still. So let’s take a look.

windows 10 virtual desktops task view

Task View and virtual desktops

The biggest productivity addition to Windows 10, in this humble geek’s opinion, is Task View. At a high level, Task View essentially mimes OS X’s Exposé feature, showing all your open windows at a glance. That’s useful enough, but there’s a particular sub-feature of Task View that’s even handier: virtual desktops.

Virtual desktops—long a Linux staple—allow you to create multiple virtual desktops for specialized micromanagement. For example, you could have one desktop devoted to research for a project, another for general work, and a third for more leisurely activities, switching between them as needed. Think of it as a poor man’s multi-monitor setup, but without all the extra hardware. Click the new Task View icon in the Windows 10 taskbar to get started, or read PCWorld’s Task View and virtual desktops tutorial for Jedi-level knowledge of this killer feature.

windows 10 snap quadrants

Quadrant Snap

Task View also makes Windows’ Snap feature more useful. In Windows 8, Snap only allowed you to set Windows Store apps—not desktop apps—in a side-by-side vertical splitscreen view. In Windows 10, you can Snap desktop apps as well, and Microsoft added Quadrant Snap, which allows you to Snap open windows to the four quarters of your screen.

Once you’ve filled half of your screen with Snapped windows, Task View pops up in the “open” half, beckoning you to choose an app to fill the final portion with. Mmmmm, easy-peasy multitasking.

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Thinkstock

New keyboard shortcuts

The first step to true productivity lies in the mastery of keyboard shortcuts. Many of the new Windows 10 features discussed here—especially Task View and Snap—have new associated keyboard shortcuts. Check them out!

windows 10 calendar popup

Taskbar calendar

This is a quickie but a goodie. As of the Anniversary Update, the taskbar calendar now integrates with Windows 10’s Calendar app, so summoning it reveals an overview of your tasks for the day in addition to the usual time/date view.

windows 10 start menu

Start menu customizations

The Start menu makes its return in Windows 10 after being banished from Windows 8. But it’s not like the Start menus of Windows past; instead, it’s more of a mashup of the traditional Start menu with Windows 8’s live tile-infused Start screen. And believe it or not, it can actually help you process information faster.

Windows Store apps and most default Windows 10 apps can be configured to show updates and highlights right on your Start menu—an especially useful feature for the Calendar, Mail, and News apps. Live tiles are enabled by default, though you can toggle the functionality on and off by right-clicking on a tile in your Start menu and selecting More > Turn live tile on/off.

Even if you don’t appreciate the flashy live tiles, take the time to arrange your Start menu so that your most-used programs are front and center. That’ll save you precious navigation time if you don’t pin programs to your taskbar—it also helps keep your secondary software organized even if you do pin your most-used programs. Rearranging Start menu tiles is a simple drag-and-drop affair.

cortana smart search

Cortana smart search

In general, the Cortana digital assistant’s search results are a lackluster, cluttered mess that focuses too heavily on apps and services over local files. Because of that, I pinned the superb Everything search tool to my taskbar and use that for general searches. But there’s one Cortana feature that I absolutely adore: Cortana’s smart search results, which surface relevant files based on natural language requests.

The other day, I needed to look up some receipts from the last CES. Typing “Find photos from January” in Cortana surfaced my clips in a jiffy. Looking for documents on a specific topic? Try something like “Find files about Radeon Fury.” It’s an extremely handy feature—and Cortana scans your OneDrive cloud storage in addition to your local drives when using smart search.

cortana reminders

Cortana reminders

Cortana also packs a handy reminder function. If you need to remember to take an action at a certain time, just type something like, “Remind me to call Jennifer at six” and Cortana will create a reminder for just that, which you’ll have to confirm. It’s quick, easy, and helpful—doubly so because the reminders become more powerful if you have the Cortana app installed on your phone.

If you do, you can ask Cortana to create reminders like, “Remind me to pick up milk when I’m at the store.” She’ll ask you to confirm which store, and the next time you’re in the area, you’ll receive a notification reminding you to buy milk. The future is a wonderful place, folks.

cortana phone

Text messages and notifications from your phone

If you’ve got the Cortana app on your Android or Windows Phone, the Windows 10 Anniversary Update adds the ability to see your mobile notifications right on your Windows 10 PC, and even respond to text messages. (The iOS Cortana app is much more feature-limited due to Apple policies.)

You’ll need the Cortana app on your phone first, of course. Once you’re logged in, open the settings and enable the various options under Sync Notifications. (The ability for your phone to send a low-battery warning to your PC can be a godsend, too.) Then, open Cortana’s settings on your Windows 10 PC and enable Send notifications between devices. Boom! Done. Now you’ll never have to pull your phone out of your pocket to see—and respond to—who’s blowing it up. 

windows 10 notification text message

System notifications

Hey, there’s one of those text message notifications in action!

Windows 10’s native pop-up system notifications are far handier than the Windows 8 iteration. Not only can you take direct action in many of them, but if you miss a pop-up, it gets stashed in Windows 10’s Action Center, which collects notifications and key information from all your installed apps. And after the Anniversary Update, a small bubble next to the Action Center’s icon shows you how many unread notifications are awaiting your attention. (Other Windows Store apps also display the number of unread notifications stashed in the taskbar.)

The system’s a handy way to surface and respond to timely information quickly, while allowing less critical tasks to wait for your attention. It’s especially useful if you head to Start > Settings > System > Notifications and actions and pare down the list of apps that can send you notifications to the true essentials.

windows 10 quick actions

Action Center buttons

While you’re in that Notifications and actions menu, take the time to peruse and configure the Quick Actions options as well. Quick Actions appear as buttons at the bottom of your Action Center; pressing them quickly activates (or deactivates) the specified task. They can prove pretty handy, especially if you travel frequently, connect to other devices or networks often, or lean heavily on OneNote.

windows 10 windows ink

Windows Ink

Speaking of notes, if you have a touch-enabled PC or tablet, check out the new Windows Ink feature in the Anniversary Update. You can pull up a dedicated “ink workspace” (pictured) with tools and apps that support styli, and auto-create Cortana reminders based on written notes, for example.

Two of the three dedicated Windows Ink apps can help improve productivity. Sticky Notes, well, lets you quickly scribble down digital sticky notes, while Screen Sketch lets you grab a screenshot of your display, then quickly mark it up and share it online. They’re niche, but helpful—and Microsoft seems dedicated to amping up Windows 10’s inking capabilities even more in the future.

windows 10 per monitor scaling

Per-monitor display scaling

This is more of a quality-of-life improvement than a straight productivity tip, but there’s no question you get more done on tools that are calibrated correctly. In previous versions of Windows, using multiple monitors with different resolutions could be a bit of a headache: The OS forced one set level of image scaling across all displays, which could result in nasty sizing wonkiness.

Head to Start > Settings > System > Display and you can now set scaling for each individual monitor attached to your rig. Hallelujah. The tool has some quirks though, so be sure to read PCWorld’s guide to Windows 10 per-monitor display scaling for the full scoop.

external hard drives

File History

If you take advantage of Windows’ File History feature, which archives revisions made to individual files to an external hard drive, Windows 10 made it easier than ever to reclaim prior versions.

Don’t know what all the hub-bub’s about? Make sure you have an external hard drive handy and head over to PCWorld’s Windows 10 File History tutorial to get it up and running. Once it is, all you have to do is right-click on a file, click Properties, and select the Previous Versions tab to see its archived versions.

windows 10 print pdf

Print as PDF

Here’s a handy addition that does away with the need for third-party programs like CutePDF Writer. The Windows 10 print menu added a new “Print to PDF” feature that lets you save the file, email, or webpage you’re looking at as a PDF in the location of your choice. You’ll find the same option in the print menu of Windows Store apps.

Finally.

windows 10 background scrolling

Background scrolling

Here’s another quality-of-life improvement that should save you precious seconds while you multitask. In Windows 10, you can hover your mouse over a background window and use the scroll wheel on your mouse to move the page up and down. You no longer need to make a program the active window for it to recognize your scrolling.

Again: Finally.

Background scrolling should be active by default, but if it’s not, head to Start > Settings > Devices > Mouse & touchpad and enable Scroll inactive windows when I hover over them.

bash windows 10

Bash on Windows

This one’s for the true geeks and code developers. The Windows 10 Anniversary Update added a full native implementation of Linux’s beloved Bash Shell, thanks to a partnership with Canonical, the force behind Ubuntu. That means you’ll no longer need to switch to a Linux PC or boot up a Linux virtual machine to code in this all-star software. Huzzah!

You’ll need to manually enable it, though. PCWorld’s guide to how to get Bash on Windows 10 with the Anniversary Update will help you get Bash up and running.

hidden windows 10 tools
Rob Schultz

But wait, there's more!

Now that you’ve dug into Windows 10-specific features, it’s time to dig into hidden features that span several Windows releases and arguably deliver even more productivity benefits. Check out 17 obscure Windows tools and tricks too powerful to overlook and 15 simple, secret Windows tips and tricks designed to save you time and start getting even more done.

Alternatively, if you want to dive deeper into Microsoft’s latest OS, be sure to check out PCWorld’s guide to Windows 10’s best tips, tricks, and tweaks.