When Microsoft introduced Windows 8 back in 2012, they also introduced a whole slew of apps that came pre-installed or that you could purchase from the Windows Store. These apps are more like ones you install on your smartphone or tablet than the desktop applications you used to install from .exe files on CDs (or downloaded from a software company’s website). But you could still install the latter, making your system a hybrid of traditional programs and new apps. Windows 10 continues this hybrid model, which isn’t a bad thing since it lets you choose which version of each program you prefer to work with.
The problem arises when there’s a Windows 10 app that does the same basic function (e.g. email, graphic design, video player etc.) as a traditional program and decides to make its own app the default for opening and using those files.
What do I mean by default programs?
The best example for me is Microsoft’s Reader app for reading PDF files. I prefer to use Adobe Acrobat (or Adobe Reader if I’m on a computer where Acrobat isn’t installed) to read PDFs because I’m more familiar with it. And while I can just open Acrobat and then browse for the PDF file I want to read/work on, there are times when I just double-click on a PDF file to open it, e.g. when I get a PDF attachment in an email or from a link on a website.
When I did that before it would automatically open Acrobat, but after I installed Windows 8 and then 10, it opened Microsoft’s Reader app instead. That app would also open automatically when I create a PDF file from another program like Word.
And it’s not just Reader. Most of the defaults are set to built-in Microsoft apps instead of third-party programs that you may prefer, e.g. the Edge browser instead of Firefox, Chrome, Safari, etc. And it even happens with Microsoft’s own standalone programs—for example, I use Outlook for email but the default for Windows 10 is its Mail app.
Changing the default program for specific file types
Note: The following instructions will only work if you have the program installed locally on your computer. If you’re using a cloud-based version of a program—including Microsoft’s own Office 365 applications—there doesn’t seem to be any way to make those the default.
There are two ways you can change what program opens by default for any given file type.
Click the Start button and start typing “Default”.
After a few letters, “Default Programs” will appear in the search results. Click that.
The window that opens has a few of the more popular apps listed, like email and browser, but not one for opening PDF files.
Scroll down and click the Choose Default Apps by File Type link.
A screen will appear listing all the different file types and the default programs they’re currently associated with.
Scroll down to the file type for which you want to change the default program.
Click the icon for the current default program.
A menu will open up that lets you select from programs installed on your computer that can open that file type.
NOTE: If the one you want isn’t listed, you can scroll down and click the link to look for a new app in the Windows Store.
Now when I double-click on the PDF file in my email, Adobe Acrobat automatically launches instead of Microsoft Reader.
The process above has one major limitation. Sometimes the program you want isn’t already listed in the dropdown menu and if it’s not a Windows Store app, you’re stuck. In that case, we can go back to a classic Windows tool: Control Panel.
Even though you can still get to Control Panel, there’s still the problem that if you click the links for Default Programs, it will take you to the new Settings window instead of the older, more complete dialog box. But if you type “file associations” into the Control Panel search box, you’ll get a link that takes you to the screen shown above.
If that doesn’t work, there’s one more way to get to the window you need to change the default program, which is explained in the steps below. These steps will work even if you haven’t received the update yet.
Click the Start button and type in “Run” and click the Run link in the search results.
Copy and paste the following text into the Open field.
control /name Microsoft.DefaultPrograms /page pageFileAssoc
This will open the Set Associations window, which lets you choose default programs based on the file extension.
Scroll down and select the one you want to change and then click the Change Program button.
You’ll get another list of programs that can open that file type.
If your program isn’t listed there, you can scroll down and click the More Apps link. If your program STILL isn’t there, scroll down AGAIN (yes, it’s ridiculous…) and click Look for Another App on this PC.
Now a dialog box will open up that lets you browse to the .exe file on your computer for the program you want.
Select it and click the Open button to set it as the new default.
NOTE: When the Browse dialog opens, it will automatically start at the Program Files folder on your computer. Depending on the application you want, you may have to go up a level to the Program Files (x86) folder and find your .exe file under that path.
Setting different programs for opening and editing files
A T4L reader commented below that in Windows XP (aka Microsoft’s Best Operating System Ever) you could set different programs for opening a file vs. editing it. You can’t do it easily in Windows 10, but I did find one article that shows how to change the program for the Edit menu for one application by editing a registry entry. I haven’t tested it myself and you always have to be careful when making changes to the registry, but if you need to do this, you can check it out to see if it will work for your purposes:
How to Use the Windows Right-Click ‘Edit’ to Launch Photoshop Instead of MS Paint (TekRevue, 08/07/15)
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