How (and why) to use Windows Sandbox

James Walker

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Windows 10’s May 2019 update (build 1903) ships with an interesting new feature. Although aimed at more experienced users, it can also improve the safety of a variety of common tasks. Named Windows Sandbox, it enables you to fire up an isolated Windows environment, separate to your main machine, within seconds. The environment is then thrown away when you leave the session.

Turn Windows features on and off

Sandbox finally resolves one of the longest-standing issues with Windows: software installations are opaque and can ruin your system in a heartbeat. With Sandbox, you’ve got an opportunity to try different software or procedures in a disposable environment, before repeating it on your real desktop.

Sandbox could be useful if you want to install software but you have doubts about its authenticity. By installing it in Sandbox first, you can try it out, inspect the changes made to the environment and then decide whether to install it on your real desktop. Sandbox is also ideal for testing out different settings within Windows, without actually applying them or risking unwanted unchanges.

Enabling Windows Sandbox

Sandbox is an optional feature which must be manually enabled. First, open the “Turn Windows features on or off” panel by searching for it in the Start menu. Find Windows Sandbox in the list that appears. Check its checkbox and then press “OK” to install the feature.

Turn Windows features on and off

You’ll need to wait while Windows adds the necessary files to your system. Afterwards, you’ll be prompted to restart your machine – you must reboot before Sandbox is ready to use!

Entering the Sandbox

After a reboot, you’ll now find Sandbox ready and waiting in the Start menu. Scroll down the apps list or search for its name to launch it like any other app.

You’ll see the Sandbox window appear on your desktop, similar to a virtual or remote machine connection. The screen may appear black for a few seconds while the Sandbox environment starts up. You’ll shortly arrive at a fresh Windows desktop that’s yours to experiment with and possibly ruin.

Windows Sandbox screenshot

As Sandbox is completely separate to your main Windows desktop, you won’t find any of your existing apps or programs installed. Sandbox can’t access your files either – Windows automatically provisions a new virtual hard drive for the environment.

You’re effectively using a brand-new Windows machine – albeit one that was ready to run within seconds. The magic happens using a combination of virtualisation and your existing Windows kernel. This model enables Sandbox to inherit from your actual Windows installation, so it always stays up-to-date with the version on your machine.

Leaving Windows Sandbox

You can use Sandbox for as long as you like. Install programs, change settings or just browse the web – most Windows features will operate normally. Just remember that when you end the session the environment will be gone forever. Next time you launch Sandbox, you’ll be back to a clean slate again – ready to launch, use and then throw away, with all the changes forgotten.