Windows 10 PowerToys: A cheat sheet

Users are always searching for ways to make their computing lives better--the Windows 10 PowerToys are made specifically for this purpose.

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Image: Microsoft

No matter how many features Microsoft crams into its Windows 10 operating system, there will always be users looking for a faster, better, or at the very least, different way of doing things. The iteration of an operating system (no matter how well it works) is just part of human nature and it cannot be suppressed, so, why not embrace it?

Microsoft's acknowledgement of this force of human nature is the Windows 10 PowerToys download. A set of slightly unusual free Windows tools has been a part of the Windows operating system landscape since Windows 95, but their availability has been noticeably absent for Windows 10—at least until September 2019.

In 2019, Microsoft, in partnership with development company Janea Systems, released the first two PowerToys for Windows 10, accompanied by a promise of more releases in the near future. This TechRepublic cheat sheet describes each available tool or feature provided by Microsoft's official Windows 10 PowerToys.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

When was Windows PowerToys first available?

The first set of Windows PowerToys were made available for Windows 95. That first set of 15 free utilities were published and endorsed by Microsoft and made available in a free download.

From the beginning, PowerToys were designed to be used by "power users" seeking ways to tweak the way the operating system functions. In some cases, a careless change made using a PowerToys utility by an inexperienced user could cause havoc with the Windows operating system, so novice users were encouraged to use caution.

For the most part, though, PowerToys would allow users, whether they considered themselves "power" or not, to more easily make tweaks to the look and feel of Windows without a deep dive into configuration screens or the dreaded and dangerous edit of the Windows Registry file. Windows 95 PowerToys included:

  • TweakUI was used for tweaking obscure Windows settings.
  • CD Autoplay allowed all CDs to autoplay, not just audio CDs.
  • Command Prompt Here opened a command prompt in the current directory.
  • Explore from Here opened File Explorer in the current directory.
  • FlexiCD allowed a user to control an audio CD from the Taskbar.
  • Xmouse 1.2 allowed a user to change window focus by moving the mouse cursor, no click needed.

Through the years and the various Windows versions, individual PowerToys have come and gone. Each new Windows version inspired a new set of tools based on what developers perceived was needed to improve and enhance that version. Windows 10 has inspired a completely new set of PowerToys.

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How can I get Windows 10 PowerToys?

Traditionally, each power toy has been offered as a separate executable file, available as a free download from a specific Microsoft website. For Windows 10, Microsoft is taking a slightly different approach: All Windows 10 PowerToys are now included as part of a free downloadable system that users can configure. Figure A shows you what the Windows 10 PowerToys system looks like.

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Figure A

Windows 10 PowerToys Version 0.11.0 is available on GitHub right now.

These PowerToys are currently available:

  • FancyZones
  • Windows key shortcut guide

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

What can Windows 10 PowerToys do?

Here is a list of available Windows 10 PowerToys with a brief description of what each toy does.

FancyZones

FancyZones allows users to manage where and how each separate application window open on a Windows 10 desktop will display.

For example, you could use FancyZones to set up a Windows 10 desktop where Outlook always displays on the right-hand side of the desktop, Twitter or other social media always displays on the left-hand side of the desktop, and Word or Excel always displays in the middle between the other two. There would be three distinct and perpetual zones displayed at all times. Figure B shows how you select that configuration.

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Figure B

Windows key shortcut guide

The Windows key shortcut guide will display all of the available keyboard shortcuts for the current Windows 10 desktop (Figure C). This PowerToy is activated by holding the Windows key down for the length of time specified in the tool's configuration settings. The default is 900ms. Now users won't have to remember all those Windows key-related shortcut combinations.

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Figure C

New Windows 10 PowerToys will be added to the list of available tools periodically.

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Why are Windows 10 PowerToys important?

Windows 10 PowerToys provide tools and features that can make users of the Windows operating system more productive and, by extension, happier. Over the years, many users have come to depend on one or more of these PowerToys for their daily computer productivity. For many power users, PowerToys improve their quality of life.

Beyond making users more productive, PowerToys have also provided a glimpse of what features and tools could become an integral part of the Windows operating system in the future. Many of these once separate tools have become just another part of the operating system during its next iteration.

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