How to set default programs and file types in Windows 10

Millions of people are getting their first taste of Windows 10, which means that millions of people are also going through the new operating system dance of setting up all their programs just the way they like them. This can be especially frustrating if you rely on your PC for work, or if you’re a “power user” with dozens of programs set up for very specific purposes to handle different files.

Luckily, Windows 10 gives you several ways to change the default program associations. Here are the the fastest and most effective ways to point your files towards the programs you want to use them with.

Default Programs (Control Panel)

This method is for PC users who prefer the old-school Control Panel, and it doesn’t require opening the new finger-friendly Settings menu inherited from Windows 8. Open the Windows 10 Control Panel, then click “Programs,” then “Default Programs.” The first two entries on this list are what you’re interested in.

default programs
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If you’d like to set a single program as the default for all the types of files it’s capable of opening, click “set your default programs.” This screen opens a list of your installed programs in the column on the left. Click a program in the left column, then click “set this program as default” to apply all of the file type associations that the program includes.

default programs 2
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For more fine-grain control, click “Choose defaults for this program.” You’ll be presented with a detailed list of all the file type associations for the program, which you can enable or disable by clicking the check box on the left of each entry.

If all you need to do is associate a single file type with a specific program, click the “Back” button in the navigation bar until you’re at the Default Programs screen, then click “Associate a file type or protocol with specific program.” In this screen you’re given a list of all the registered file types currently on your PC’s storage drive. To change the default program for a single file, find it in the list and click it. (You can click the Name, Description, and Current Default column to sort in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order.)

set associations
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Click “Change program” to open the Associations screen, where you can choose from the first half-dozen or so programs that can open the file. If the program you want to use doesn’t appear on the list, click “more apps” to see all the programs that can handle that file type. If the program still doesn’t show up, click “look for another app on this PC” to select it manually using File Explorer.

Default Programs (Settings menu)

For a simpler but less powerful way to set default programs, open the Windows 10 Settings menu. (By default this is set to appear on the Start Menu, just above the Power button.) Click “System,” then click “Default apps” in the column on the left.

settings menu
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This screen shows you the most common default programs that can be changed, most of which are set to Microsoft programs when Windows is first installed. Click on any of the program icons to change the associations for the file type or protocol. Note that these settings are much wider than the ones in the Control Panel — for example, changing the default “Video player” option in this menu will change the file type association for .mov files, .mp4 files, .wmv files, and several similar file types. Quick links to the more complex Control Panel tools are at the bottom of this Settings screen.

Changing a default app in File Explorer

If you’re in a hurry and just want to set the default program for a single file type, you can do this from anywhere in File Explorer, or even on the desktop. Right-click on a single file, then place the cursor on “Open with.” From this nested menu you can select from the most commonly-used relevant programs on your PC.

file explorer
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To change the default program permanently, click “Choose another app” at the bottom of the sub-menu. This will open a small association menu for that file type. Click “Always use this app to open [file type] files,” then select the program you want from the list or find it via the “Look for another app on this PC” command. You’ve now permanently reset the file type association. You can change it again in the Control Panel or Settings screens above.

Other methods

During the installation process for a new Windows program, the setup will often give you the opportunity to associate file types as the program is being installed. This is especially true for catch-all tools like VLC or the popular image viewer IrfanView, both apps that can open dozens or hundreds of different file types.

firefox default
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Some programs also do periodic checks to see if they’re the default program for a file type or protocol. Web browsers like Chrome or Firefox will ask you to make them the default program (a setting inside the app’s own menu system) unless you specify that you don’t want them to.

However, the way Windows 10 handles defaults may mean these automatic checks no longer work properly. Which is why it’s good to know how to do it manually.