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Everything You Need to Know About Signing Into Windows 8.1

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Windows 8.1 and 8 brought big changes to Windows. Even the process of logging in and setting up user accounts is extremely different, with new types of user accounts and login options.

You can still set up basic local user accounts without any online service integration, parental controls, or fancy login methods. Whether you like Microsoft accounts or prefer not to use them, there are interesting options for you here.

Microsoft Accounts vs. Local Accounts

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When setting up an account on Windows 8.1, you have a choice to use either a Microsoft account or a local account. By default, Windows 8.1 gives you a Microsoft account unless you click the “Sign in without a Microsoft account (not recommended)” link and bypass another information screen.

Microsoft accounts are online accounts — they enable OneDrive integration on the desktop, sync your desktop settings online, and are required for many of the “Store Apps” in the new interface. You can sign in with your Microsoft account and password on any Windows 8.1 system.

Local accounts are the traditional style of Windows user account. Your user account name and password are stored only on your computer. You won’t be able to use OneDrive, desktop settings sync, or other account-based features if you choose a local user account.

You can convert accounts between Microsoft and local accounts in the PC Settings app, so you can always change your mind later.

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Parental Controls

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When adding a new user account to your computer, you have the option to turn on Family Safety for the account. This enables parental control features, so it’s ideal if you’re creating accounts for children. These parental controls allow you to restrict access to websites, control when the accounts can use the computer, and monitor their computer usage.

After setting this up, you can access the parental controls and reports from Microsoft’s Family Safety website.

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Picture Passwords and PINs Are Supplementary

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You can set up a picture password or PIN from within the PC Settings app. These are secondary passwords — you’ll still need a traditional password. These login methods just give you an easier way to log into your computer with less typing. This is ideal for tablets where you want to tap a few times to log in rather than type a long password on a touch screen.

Be sure to choose a secure password if you set up this type of login method, as anyone can choose to log in with your password instead of your picture password or PIN.

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Trust This PC

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After signing in with a Microsoft account for the first time, you’ll be asked to “Trust this PC.” Trusting a PC involves confirming your account details. After trusting a PC, you can sync passwords to the PC and use it to reset your Microsoft account password if you forget it.

You should only do this if you’re signing into your own PC you have control of, not if you’re signing into someone else’s PC.

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Administrator vs. Standard Accounts

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As on previous versions of Windows, accounts can be either administrator accounts or standard user accounts. Administrator accounts can change system settings and install programs, while standard user accounts are more restricted.

Even while using an administrator account, UAC provides additional protection so programs running on your account have to prompt you before writing to system files, installing software, and doing other things that require administrator access.

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Guest Account Access

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Windows 8.1 provides a guest account, although it’s still disabled by default. You’ll need to enable it from the desktop Control Panel. After you do, anyone can sign into your computer without a password by selecting the Guest account on the login screen. Anyone using the guest account will have restricted access to your computer, so it’s ideal for allowing a guest access to a web browser while restricting the damage and snooping they can do.

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Assigned Access

Windows 8.1 allows you to set up accounts for assigned access. An assigned access account only has access to a single app — yes, this means only Store apps are allowed, not desktop applications. For example, you could set up an account and restrict it to only Internet Explorer, effectively creating a web browser-only, kiosk-like account. More bizarrely, you could use assigned access to turn one account on your Windows 8.1 system into a Chrome-OS-style environment.

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Boot to Desktop

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Windows 8 didn’t allow you to boot to desktop at all, Windows 8.1 added this option and left it off by default, and Windows 8.1 Update enabled boot-to-desktop by default on PCs without touchscreens. You can still modify this setting yourself, if you like.

To do so, right-click the desktop taskbar, select Properties, click the Navigation tab, and toggle the “When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start” checkbox.

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The Lock Screen

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Windows 8.1 displays a lock screen before you log in, but this screen is really suited more to a tablet. If you just use a touchless desktop PC and you don’t care about seeing app information on your lock screen, you can permanently hide the lock screen and go straight to the login dialog each time you boot or come back to your computer. Follow our guide to disabling the lock screen in the registry, which will work on all editions of Windows 8.1

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Automatic Login

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Microsoft doesn’t provide an obvious way to automatically log into your Windows 8 PC. If you have your PC in a secure location and want to speed things up, you can use the old, hidden User Accounts dialog to set up automatic login.

This obviously reduces your computer’s security, so be careful when enabling this option. It’s a particularly bad idea for laptops that could be snatched.

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Most of these tricks only apply to Windows 8.1 and 8. A few of them — for example, the guest account and automatic sign-in — also apply to Windows 7 and older versions of Windows.

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 05/5/14