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HTG Explains: Microsoft Accounts vs. Local Accounts in Windows 8

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Windows 8 is more integrated with Microsoft’s services than ever. When you create a user account on your computer, you’ll be prompted to use a Microsoft account. Microsoft accounts are different from local user accounts, which are still available.

Microsoft accounts offer useful synchronization features, even for desktop users. However, a Microsoft account isn’t mandatory if you stick to the Windows desktop – you can continue using a local user account on the desktop without any problems.

What is a Microsoft Account?

There’s a good chance you already have a Microsoft account. A “Microsoft account” is a new name for Microsoft’s online account system, which was previously known as Windows Live ID, Microsoft Passport, and Microsoft Wallet, among other names.

If you’ve ever registered for a Hotmail account or Windows Live ID; that’s a Microsoft account. Microsoft accounts are now also used for other Microsoft services, including Xbox Live, Windows Phone, and Zune.

While most Microsoft accounts will probably be associated with an @hotmail.com, @outlook.com, or @live.com email address, you can create a Microsoft account linked to any email address. For example, you could have a Microsoft account linked to your @gmail.com email address.

Benefits of Using a Microsoft Account

While using a Microsoft account, you’ll be able to synchronize some of your PC’s settings between your computers. You’ll find options for controlling these settings in the PC Settings application – move your mouse to the bottom or top right corners of the screen, select the Settings charm, and click More PC Settings at the bottom of the Settings pane to open it.

Many settings here, such as “App settings,” only apply to modern-style apps (formerly known as Metro-style apps). Other sync options, such as your account picture, desktop background, and taskbar configuration are useful to Windows desktop users that use Windows on multiple computers. After you set up Windows once, your settings will be synchronized between every computer you log into with your Microsoft account.

Passwords can only be synced after you trust your computer.

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You can browse the Windows Store with a local user accoutn, but you’ll have to sign up for a Microsoft account if you want to download an app. The Windows Store only allows you to download Modern-style apps, though – if you only use desktop apps, this limitation won’t bother you.

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Many modern-style apps won’t work until you log in with a Microsoft account. If you’re using a local user account, you’ll have to sign up for a Microsoft account if you want to use included apps like the Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, and SkyDrive apps.

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Selecting a Microsoft Account or Local Account

You can switch between a local account and Microsoft account from the PC Settings app – use the Switch to a local account or Switch to a Microsoft account button under your username.

You can also add additional users using the Add a user button – each additional user account can be either a Microsoft account or local account.

Click the More account settings online link here to manage your Microsoft account’s security settings in a web browser – you can also access your Microsoft account summary page here.

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To create a local user account, you’ll have to use the Sign in without a Microsoft account link hidden near the bottom of the Add a user dialog.

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After clicking this link, you’ll have to click the Local account button again. Even after clicking Sign in without a Microsoft account, the Microsoft account button remains highlighted — Microsoft clearly wants you to create a Microsoft account for use with Windows 8.

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Local user accounts can be used normally after creation. You’ll only run into limitations if you attempt to sync your settings, download modern-style apps from the Windows Store, or use certain modern-style apps that require a Microsoft account.

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Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 08/18/12

Comments (11)

  1. TheFu

    Very nice writeup about very useful features for 99.99999% of the public.

    However, I’d like a single button – [b]never connect to Microsoft for anything[/b] option.

    I believe Microsoft runs these services for Windows7 installs:
    * No NTP (time)
    * No logins (new passport?)
    * No email (MS version)
    * No Storage (MS version)
    * No Bing search
    * No social networking (MS versions)
    * No Application Store (MS versions)
    * No DNS (do they have a DNS service now?)

    With 1 button, I’d like to decide for my PC to never contact Microsoft for anything other than OS and application patches.

    I’d like the same button for Facebook, Twitter, foursquare and Google. Blocking them all is relatively easy, but making most of the internet still work good enough without these massive online Goliaths is becoming harder and harder. Harder questions include – do I allow email to be exchanged with a Microsoft public email server – outlook.com, hotmail.com, etc …. ? This is about protecting our privacy that’s all.

    Microsoft has appeared to be one of the more trustworthy companies when it comes to personal data. I think that may change as they have more and more of everyone’s data stored on their servers.

  2. r

    I have absolutely no need for a Microsoft Account.
    I would use it only to turn it off, which is likely not possible

  3. SatoMew

    @r, it is possible. You can switch between a Microsoft account or a local account on Windows 8 at any time.

    P.S.: I don’t like Windows 8 at all but I’m testing it on VMware Workstation on Windows 7 so I can check out the final release. If people are going to be critical about it, at least may it be in a constructive and informed manner.

  4. Adam

    Logging in with my Microsoft account would mean that my Microsoft account password will be much less secure than it is today. My pc password needs to be short, only somewhat secure, with the to be quickly entered. My network passwords are long, difficult to type, and largely unknown as they’re all stored in a password manager.

  5. Jeeves

    Very informative. I literally just set up Win 8 Pro on my Dell Studio to dabble as I have wanted to check out 8 but didnt have the stones to do it during the Pre-release. A mistake l made led to a reformat and then (because I had nothing to lose), wound up loading her up. I dont have a preference either way (yet) but think MS went all out “Putting it all on black” and dont really see this OS going anywhere for the faint at heart and less savvy users (its overwhelming).

    If its true about change then I say good luck with 8 as the young hip and more savvy user will appreciate the interface and most modern layout but for the average Windows user, Ill say good luck MS and get going on sp2 for 7. Does MS expect all the businesses relying on XP sp3 to jump to 8? Idk but can say they better have their checkbooks out because training someone on 8 will be costly, risky, and some will say assinine. I myself am partial to XP (i think its the best ever) but remember myself “crying a river” when I could no longer use 98 (2nd ed) due to the legacy issues however acceptance goes a long way and once I accepted XP is how it was, I grew to love it and if not for the technology, and added features, and more supported 7, I would be “riding out” with XP presently. I will say I dont see Windows 8 being even close to successful as most I know will skip this one (windows 7 still has 7 years of being supported). Win XP inversly is on its death bed and when it ceases to exist I wish any business of any size good luck if they plan on rumning 8 and As I noted above, they better have their checkbooks ready.

    I see a Fozburry Flop in the near future but have known to be wrong on several occasions but my money is on a “Vista” like scenerio for anyone laying it on the line with Win 8.

  6. Kevalin

    Windows 8 = Star Trek 5. Lots of money thrown into a disaster.

    And by the way, I expect this to be true, regardless of good or bad it actually is. The learning curve is rather steeper than most of the (American) public will want to put up with. Tragic though it is, I think Apple is going to be gaining more suppoters for their grosssly overpriced products and bad business practices.

  7. Viv

    @Kevalin

    Did you find the learning curve rather steep? unfortunate stuff for you, tragic actually.
    I found it quite simple & intuitive here in America. Perhaps you should stick to something less steep in the meantime.

  8. john3347

    Gosh, I have had more than one of these revered Microsoft accounts for a few years. I didn’t even know that it was such a great and wonderful special something. I thought it was just a procedure to access certain Microsoft functions. Was to me kinda like a bank or Yahoo account that you make up a screen name and password to access the site. What’s so special and mysterious about that?

    Gosh, I reckon I’m more special than I realized. I have a Microsoft account! Have 3 of them. Two on my old Office Live account (now hotmail) and one on my Yahoo account.

  9. Kevalin

    @Viv: Don’t get your knickers in a knot because I told the truth. While I am unlikely to find the learning curve particularly steep, since I tinker with computers all the time , the same cannot be said of most of the general public. And I’m not speaking just of “older” folks, either.

    Whether you and Microsoft like or not, the so-called average user often knows little more about their computer than how to turn it on, get to their browser, run the programs they use on a day-to-day basis (and Lord save them if something goes south in that arena), and turn them off. And here’s newsflash, Viv: Most of them don’t WANT to know more about them than that. If anything, people seem even less willing to learn new things, re. their computers, than they were when Vista came out.

    Throwing these users the pad format that is Windows 8 onto regular desk and laptops is going to create a hullaballoo that will make Vista look like a walk across the street. I say again, Apple is going to get an unfortunate amount of new business from this, and I say it with no apoplogies.

    I just hope Microsoft survives it, because frankly, I prefer PCs.

  10. Beware of w8

    I loaded Windows 8 preview version a long time ago on a separate drive. I unplugged my other two drives when I did this. About a week ago, I thought I would try Windows 8 again so I plugged in the cable and power to the Windows 8 drive. It booted and after a while it said it said it was checking my other drives. The disk drive lights ran and ran and ran. After it finally quit I rebooted and tried to boot my Windows 7 drive, it would not boot. Instead it and my second drive were completed destroyed and unreadable. Shame on Windows 8 for doing this to my drives. Lucky for me I have images stored on a usb drive of each drive. No more Windows 8 for me.

  11. Robin

    @Adam

    You can leave your Microsoft password very complex. Windows 8 will allow you to add a “PIN” to your account for logging into your desktop. If your desktop is in a safe place (home office) using a 4 digit PIN is safe enough to log in.

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