Windows 10 has been around for two years, but chances are you’ve just bought a new laptop or PC and you’re seeing it for the first time.

Those upgrading from Windows 7 should feel quite at home as not a great deal has changed in the way everything works. The Start menu is bit different, Cortana is likely bugging you to try her out and there are a few new apps which effectively replace old one (but those are – on the whole - still there if you look for them).

We think Windows 10 is better than any previous version of Windows in virtually every way, and you shouldn’t worry about privacy: you can tailor exactly what information is fed back to Microsoft, and we’ll explain how to do it.

What’s new in Windows 10?

In short, quite a lot. Too much to cover here, but you can read our Windows 10 review for all the details.

To summarise, and this isn’t an exhaustive list, this lot is new:

  • Cortana, your voice- or text- activated personal assistant
  • Photos, a new app for viewing and editing
  • Groove, a replacement for Windows Media Player
  • People, an app to keep important contact details
  • Edge browser, a replacement for Internet Explorer
  • Mail, an app that works with most common email accounts
  • Windows Store, where you can download free and paid-for apps
  • Settings, an easier to use Control Panel
  • Action Centre, a pop-out sidebar for notifications
  • Virtual desktops
  • Task View, which is an easier way to arrange multiple windows on screen
  • 3D Paint, available in the Creators Update

How to use Windows 10

Despite these new apps and features, Microsoft has kept all the old apps including Paint, Windows Media Player and the old Control Panel, so you can use those if you really don’t like the new versions.

We’ve explained how to set those old programs as the defaults in our Quick fixes for Windows 10 guide.

We recommend trying the new apps, though, as they’re genuinely better than their predecessors, being both easier to use and more powerful.

Almost everything else works the same way as in previous versions of Windows and it’s possible to do everything you’re used to without using any of the new features, though you’ll miss out on a lot of the good stuff if you don’t.

Microsoft login

One change in Windows 10 is that you can (but aren’t forced to) create a Microsoft account when you first sign in. Using a Microsoft account is much like a Google or Apple account on an Android or iPhone.

It allows certain things to be synchronised across all your Windows 10 computers, such as you wallpaper and desktop layout so that they all look the same. It also shares settings and bookmarks and makes it far easier to upgrade to a new Windows 10 computer.

Of course, you can completely bypass the Windows 10 login screen.  if you don’t want to enter a password, but this isn’t recommended as it’s a big security risk. For the quickest login, buy a laptop or tablet with a Windows Hello camera that will recognise your face and log you in automatically.

Also, here’s how to log in when you forget your password.

Cortana

Like Siri, the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, Cortana is there to help. She can do lots of things, from launching apps to taking notes and reminders, as well as answering questions and searching the web.

For the specifics, see our step-by-step guide on How to use Cortana. 

How to use Windows 10

Edge browser

Internet Explorer has had its day, or so it seems. Edge is its replacement, and is the default web browser in Windows 10. It has some useful features, such as the ability to grab a portion of a web page and share it with a friend, and even annotate pages. Here’s how to use Edge.

Even more features were added in the 2017 Creators Update, including one that lets you save a group of tabs which you can re-open at will – useful for researching a holiday, for example.

It also has a reading mode that strips out the clutter so you can an easier-to-read version of an article.

Virtual desktops

How to use Windows 10

These are great if you have only one physical screen as you can place apps on different desktops and switch between them using shortcut keys.

Spend a little time forcing yourself to use them and you’ll discover it’s a much more efficient way of working than having lots of apps hidden behind others on a single desktop.

Here’s how to use virtual desktops in Windows 10

Action Centre

Action Centre is much like the notification centre you're probably used to on your smartphone (it's copied from Windows Phone, really). You can click the icon to the right of the clock to display it, but it's easier to press the Windows key + A.

If you happen to have a Windows Phone, notifications will be synchronised between your phone and PCs, assuming you're using the same Micosoft account on them.

You can customise the tiles at the bottom – effectively shortcuts as you get on Android and iOS - and add Quick Action tiles. To do this, go to Start > Settings > Notifications & actions.

How to use Windows 10

Windows Ink

If your laptop or tablet (or even PC) has a touchscreen, you’ll probably be able to use Windows Ink. It’s mainly for 2-in-1 laptops like Microsoft’s own Surface range, but anything with a stylus will benefit.

In the latest version of Windows 10 there's greater emphasis on using your stylus to handwrite notes or quickly take a screenshot of your work. Try firing up sticky notes and scribbling something, or use Sketchpad.

There's also Windows Ink Workspace which you can display by tapping the new icon in the notification area. Plus, you can handwrite an appointment note, and Cortana can provide you with the option to set it as a reminder.

How to use Windows 10

Continuum

Another one for 2-in-1, Continuum means that the Windows interface switches easily between laptop (keyboard/mouse) and tablet (touch) modes automatically.

It will do this if it detects the removal or connection of a keyboard, but you can also change the setting (which appears the first time you connect or remove the keyboard) to ask what you want to do each time.

Active hours

One of the biggest annoyances with early versions of Windows 10 was the inability to defer updates, and the fact that it would restart to install those updates even if you were in the middle of something.

More recently you'd see a warning with the option to set a time to restart. While you still can't put off updates in Windows 10 Home, there is a handy feature called Active Hours. It lets you set the times you usually use your computer each day, and will ensure there are no automatic restarts during these hours.

How to use Windows 10

There's a similar feature called Quiet Hours which - as on your smartphone - stops notifications disturbing you at night between the times you set. To find both features, simply search for them in the Start menu.

Antivirus: Windows Defender

This is Windows' built-in antivirus software. Defender now uses the power of the cloud to more quickly detect threats, and you can also perform offline scans. It’s on by default (if no other antivirus software was pre-loaded on your computer) and it does a great job, scoring highly in our roundup of the best free antivirus software. 

File Explorer

If you’re coming from Windows 7, you can read about the differences in our Windows 7 vs 10 comparison.

But in terms of File Explorer, there are lots of little upgrades that make your life easier: one being Quick access. This new section automatically displays files and folders you use regularly, or have modified recently.

Here’s how to use all the enhancements in File Explorer.

Backup and restore

This isn’t a new feature as such, but it’s easier to backup files and restore Windows in version 10.

Here’s how to back up your files and here’s how to use System Restore.

Boot faster

Another change in Windows 10 is that it’s a lot easier to stop programs from running when you turn on your laptop or PC. This makes it quicker to boot and more responsive in general. Here’s how to change startup apps.

Record games

A new app called Xbox lets you check on your achievements when you’re logged in with the same ID you use on your Xbox, as well as message friends. It also includes Game DVR where you can find screenshots and video clips from both your Xbox One and games you’ve played on your Windows 10 machine, be that a tablet, laptop or PC.

How to use Windows 10

Game DVR works in a similar way to the same feature on the Xbox One. In a game you can press Windows key + G to bring up the game bar.

In the latest update to Window 10, there’s a new Game Mode which prevents background programs using up processing power so your computer’s full power goes to the game.

For detailed instructions, see How to use Game DVR.