Whether you have a brand-new Windows laptop or you’re giving your PC a little TLC in the form of a new reinstallation of Windows 10, setting up your operating system correctly is easy. There are a bunch of variables you might not know about, sure, but this isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t take very long to get Windows 10 up and running, and customizing it from there is worth however much time you feel like spending—you’ll only have to do the basics once, after all.
Reinstalling Windows doesn’t take as much time as you think
I’ll be walking through the Windows installation process on a Surface Pro laptop, which might have a few different options or screens than the desktop or laptop you’re using. If you don’t need help getting Windows 10 installed, and want to skip straight to some settings and configuration advice, just click here.
When Windows’ installation process starts up—on my Surface Pro, at least—Microsoft uses Cortana to say hello and explain a few basic steps. It can be a little jarring to have your laptop start blasting noise at you, so I quickly mute Cortana (sorry) as soon as she begins her monologue. Once she’s done, Windows asks you to confirm your location—that’s easy—and then you’ll then be asked to confirm the keyboard layout you want. I’m willing to bet that 99 percent of you will go with the default option, as you should.
Also, a brief aside: Since Cortana is listening during the installation process, you don’t even have to click on any prompts. Just speak the word in the box you want to select—like “Skip”—if you want to set up your operating system lazy-style.
From there, Windows will ask you to connect to a wireless network. I recommend using your system’s Ethernet connection, if applicable. Either way, you’ll want to get your PC connected to your home network so Windows 10 can grab any and all updates it needs during this initial installation process.
After that, Windows will chug along and do some “important setup” things that take “just a moment.” Eventually, you’ll have to accept the Windows 10 License Agreement, which you will surely not read all the way to the end (or likely even start to read). More “just a moment” background tasks will follow.
Windows will then ask you if you want to set up your system for personal use, or set it up to be managed remotely by an organization. Odds are good that most of you will be using Windows with a personal Microsoft account. Pick that option.
At this point, Microsoft will ask you to sign in with a Microsoft account. If you don’t have one, sign up for one. If you do have one, sign in with it; this will allow Windows to pull in a number of your your settings and personalized elements from previous versions of Windows, as the OS synchronizes these to your account automatically. It’s a great way to save a little time when you’re setting up a new PC. Also, linking your Windows activation key to your Microsoft account makes it easy to re-activate Windows when reinstalling the OS, especially if you made some hardware modifications.
Since you (hopefully) turned on two-factor authentication for your Microsoft Account, you’ll also have to input an emailed or texted code after you type in your password.
My Surface Pro has a built-in webcam that supports Windows Hello—which is both awesome and convenient—so the OS next prompts me to set up Windows’ face recognition feature for easier (and more secure) sign-ins. I flash a grin, stare at my laptop’s webcam, and continue on.
As a fallback, in case Windows can’t tell who you are, the OS asks you to set up a PIN code to log into Windows (an easier solution than typing in your long-ass Microsoft Account password or passphrase). You can use numbers, ATM-style, or you can use a mix of numbers, letters, and symbols. Your call.
Done yet? Not quite. Microsoft will also ask if you want to link your smartphone with your PC. I don’t often find myself sending things back and forth between my computer and smartphone, so I tend to skip this step. Also, Microsoft is only going to text you a link to download an app; it’s not doing anything with your phone number beyond that.
Windows should then ask if you want to make Cortana your personal assistant. I don’t use digital assistants on my laptops but, again, if you’re fond of saying “Hey Cortana” and having useful information returned, go right ahead and click (or say) yes.
Finally, Microsoft will ask you about various privacy settings you’d like to review for your Windows PC. This is where you’ll be able to flip off features like “Find my device,” which you should keep on in case you ever lose your laptop; Diagnostic data, in case you don’t want your laptop sending information to Microsoft about the apps you use or the websites you browse; and “Tailored experiences,” which is Microsoft’s way of personalizing content for you based on what information the company gleans about your interests and app use.
After that, Windows’ installation process chugs along in the background while you stare at the “Just a moment” screen, pondering just how long Microsoft thinks a “moment” actually is.
Once Windows is done—which hopefully shouldn’t take that long—you’ll go directly into the operating system (with an Edge welcome screen pulled up, naturally). Close that, and let’s have some more fun setting up your OS.
All the settings worth tweaking in your new Windows 10 OS
The first thing I like to do when setting up a new Windows system is make sure that it’s fully updated, just in case something slipped through the cracks during the installation process. To do this, click on the start button, type “update,” and click on Check for updates. Click the big “Check for updates” button in the subsequent window.
While that runs, click on Advanced Options. In here, you’ll be able to toggle whether you want Windows to also update other Microsoft products you’ve installed at the same time, and notify you if it’s planning to restart your system as the result of an update. You can also pause updates–seven days for Windows Home users and up to 35 days for Windows Pro users.
Click the back arrow and click on “Change active hours.” Here, you’ll be able to set a time—like your nine-to-five workday or precious after-work hours—and Windows won’t automatically restart your system for updates during this period.
While anything Windows 10 installs on your system should cover the basics—update, system drivers, and the lot—there’s always the potential that your desktop or laptop’s manufacturer might have newer or more specific drivers, other software updates, or firmware updates. Check out its website to see what’s available, especially if there are any other apps you can install to manage this process going forward. If you build your PC yourself, you’ll likely only need to worry about updates from your motherboard’s manufacturer, so start there.
Consider joining the Windows Insider Program
To try out new Windows features before regular users, click on Windows Insider Program—in the same Settings window—and click the “Get started” button.
Follow Microsoft’s prompts and pick the kind of pre-release updates you want to receive: I recommend going for the “Beta Channel” option, as it gives you the ideal mix of new features and stability.
Explore Windows 10’s other settings
Click on the “Home” link in the upper-left corner of the Settings window to return to the primary Setting screen. There’s a lot to adjust here, so I’ll just focus on some of the more useful tweaks:
On the Display tab, consider turning on Night Light to adjust the warmth of your screen during the evening hours, which might make it easier for you to get to bed when you’re done working.
On the Sound tab, use “App volume and device preferences” to customize the volume of your sounds for each app you use (and whether you want to hear them in your headphones or from your laptop’s built-in speakers). This is also where you’ll be able to reset every app’s sound levels, which is an incredibly useful troubleshooting technique if some things on your PC sound a lot louder or quieter than others.
On the Notifications & actions tab, you can turn off Microsoft’s suggested tips and tricks if you’re already a Windows expert. More importantly, you can adjust which apps are allowed to bug you with notifications (and how said notifications should appear in your OS).
Focus assist lets you dictate times when you want Windows to block all notifications, or only allow priority notifications to bother you—including when you’re working, gaming, or when you’re sharing your screen.
The Power & Sleep tab is where you’ll set how long Windows should wait before kicking your system off or putting it to sleep—both when it’s plugged in and when it’s running on battery.
Battery is pretty self-explanatory. You can see how much battery power you have left, and you can adjust when Windows should flip on Battery saver mode, which turns off some background updates, live tiles, and apps you aren’t actively using in an effort to give you as much time on your battery as possible.
Storage is where you’ll go to enable Storage sense, which automatically deletes temporary files and files in your recycle bin on a regular basis. Click “Change how we free up space automatically” to adjust exactly what Windows is deleting on your behalf.
Check out Shared experiences to enable Windows 10's Nearby sharing feature—an AirDrop-like experience that lets you more easily pass content to other Windows 10 systems over Bluetooth or wifi.
You can enable Windows 10's built-in Remote Desktop feature on the corresponding tab, but I find it just as easy (if not easier) to use something like Chrome Remote Desktop.
Network & Internet
Head on back to the default Windows Settings window and click on Network & Internet. Yes, I’m skipping Devices, but feel free to play around with it if you want to set up a printer, adjust how many lines scroll whenever you flick your mouse wheel, or what autoplay settings Windows should default to whenever you plug in a particular device. Phone is irrelevant, as it’s just the same “text my smartphone a link to download Windows apps” setting as before.
Within Network & Internet’s Status tab, you can click on “Change adapter options” to dig deep into your system’s wired and wifi capabilities—and this is how you’ll set your system to use a speedier DNS service, if you want.
The “Network and Sharing Center” link is what you’ll use to configure whether your system can be discovered on your network (and whether you want others to be able to access your shared files or printers).
One little trick: click on the Properties button on the Status tab to switch your current network between “Public” and “Private,” in case your home wifi—for whatever reason—is incorrectly set to “Public.” This only matters if you’ve customized security and sharing settings differently for your browsing in your local coffee shop than your browsing at home, which I recommend doing through in the aforementioned Sharing options screen.
Elsewhere in Network & Internet, you’ll be able to add new wifi networks, VPN services, and enable airplane mode for your laptop as needed. You can also set up a mobile hotspot, which will let you share your laptop’s connection—Ethernet or wifi—with any devices that wirelessly connect to your laptop.
You can set data limits in the Data usage tab if you don’t want to run over your ISP’s data cap. I also like looking at Overview to see just how much data I’ve used over the past 30 days. Thanks, Steam downloads.
This one’s a biggie. In here, you’ll be able to set your desktop background (either a single picture of a slideshow of images), Windows 10's accent color, what you want its lock screen to look like (and what apps, if any, should appear on it), and what you want both your Start Menu and Taskbar to look like. You can also set your system to use the much-loved dark mode, via the Colors tab.
All of Windows’ Personalization settings are pretty easy to figure out, but definitely don’t overlook the Start tab. You can use “Show more tiles on Start” to expand the menu, turn off suggestions for your most used or recently added apps (if you don’t need reminders), or even have your Start Menu go full screen whenever you hit the Start button. Go wild.
In the Taskbar tab, you can set whether you want the Taskbar to automatically hide in either desktop or tablet modes, whether it should use regular-sized or teeny-tiny buttons, and where it should appear on your screen. More importantly, the “Notification area” section lets you decide which icons should populate your Taskbar, which can help you keep it clean if you have a ton of apps that just always want to appear present in your Windows OS.
And if you have no need for Windows 10's little “People” button—which you can use to more easily hit up your favorite contacts from the Taskbar—you can turn that off here as well.
The most important thing you need to know about Apps is that this is where you go to uninstall that which you no longer want on your Windows 10 system.
You can also attempt to use the Default Apps tab to set specific programs that Windows should use when you open up certain kinds of files, but I find that Windows’ implementation just isn’t as good as it used to be. (I still can’t use “Set defaults by app” to let my VLC media player open every single file type it can handle.)
You can also use the Startup tab to see which apps launch when your system loads, but I find it easier to just pull up Windows’ System Configuration screen (Type “System Configuration” after you’ve clicked the Start Button) and adjust startup apps from there.
Since you already set up your Microsoft account when installing Windows 10 (right?), there’s not much worth tweaking in this section. However, the Email & accounts tab is where you’ll add third-party accounts from services like Google, Yahoo, iCloud, or other POP (or IMAP) accounts you can access. When you add your accounts, they’ll then be available for Windows’ default apps to use, like Mail, Calendar, et cetera.
The ever-important Sign-in options tab is what you’ll visit if you want to change your system’s password or PIN, or to turn Windows Hello on and off (if applicable). You can also set a picture password if you’re feeling fancy.
If you want to let family members use your system with their own accounts, you can set those up in the Family & other people tab. You can also create regular system accounts for people who aren’t members of your family.
There’s not much of a reason to not use Windows 10's “sync settings” feature, which you’ll find in the corresponding tab, as it makes it easy to set up multiple Windows systems with the same settings you know and love. You can configure what gets synchronized—or turn it off entirely—in this screen.
In this section, you can decide whether you want to use Windows’ Game Bar—that handy little batch of shortcuts that makes it easy to take screenshots, start recordings, and stream broadcasts of your games. You can also assign hotkeys for each of these features.
The Captures tab is where you’ll want to go if you want to enable background recording, where Windows will always record whenever you’re playing. That’s useful if you want to go back at any point in your session and make a highlight reel of your awesome accomplishments.
It’s a magical Windows world; let’s go exploring
Even after this crash course, it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of what the operating system offers. Heck, we haven’t even covered the Control Panel yet, and that’s a lot more options to look at.
This guide has hopefully gotten you set up with all the basics; now, you can use all the time you saved to explore all of Windows’ other features, apps, and buried configuration menus. Look for future guides that dig even deeper into the OS. For now, go have some fun with Windows. You’ve earned it.
This article was originally published in May 2018 by David Murphy. He updated it in December 2020 with new screenshots and clarifications based on today’s Windows 10 OS.