Windows 8.1

In this lesson, we continue our tour of the PC Settings with a focus on Windows User Accounts and Accounts Settings, namely what you could do in the Control Panel versus what you must do now in PC Settings.

Windows 8 introduced a great deal of change to system user accounts. In fact, in many ways they’re completely different now. Take for instance the Microsoft account. It used to be that in order to “take” your desktop with you, you actually had to export your profile to something like an external disk or removable media, and then transfer it to another computer.

With a Microsoft account, all your settings, preferences, and even Windows Store apps can now be seamlessly moved from desktop to tablet to laptop with little effort than simply signing into a computer with your username and password.

There’s also new ways to sign in, which means that now, especially on touch devices, you can simply use a picture or PIN to log in. It is certainly easier when you don’t have to use the onscreen keyboard to always have to input your password.

Finally, to round things out, we’ll talk about the OneDrive settings and why they matter so much to your roaming profile, if you decide to use one. Then we close out with a brief examination of Ease of Access. So let’s dive in and get started, we have a lot to cover!

Windows User Accounts vs. Accounts Settings

Traditionally, user accounts on Windows were dealt with in the Control Panel.

Windows 8.1 moves or removes most of the functions found here and transfers them to the PC Settings. What you can still do here is basic or fairly advanced. For example, we’re willing to wager that most Windows users aren’t going to ever fuss with file encryption certificates and environment variables.

The only thing the User Accounts control panel offers over its PC Settings equivalent is the ability to change User Account Control settings.


Let’s briefly cover User Account Control just so you know what it is and how to turn it down or even off. UAC is designed to prevent you and harmful programs from damaging your computer by throwing up warnings when you try to make change according to the following criteria:

  • Always notify when apps try to install software or make changes to your computer, or you make changes to Windows settings.
  • Only notify you when apps attempt to make changes to your computer. This is the default setting.
  • Only notify you when apps attempt to make changes to your computer but do not dim the desktop. This is a performance setting. The outcome is the same except when UAC warns you, it does not dim the desktop, which is better for lower performing computers.

If you set the slider to “never notify” then UAC is turned off and you will not be warned about any potential changes. We do not recommend you do this.

How-To Geek School provides an entire lesson on preventing disaster with user account control and we recommend you check it out!

Accounts Settings

Let us turn our attention to the Accounts PC Settings in earnest. At this point in Windows’s evolution, account management has more or less relocated here so get used to using this for account creation and management.

Let’s go through each part of Accounts and explain a few things such as the difference between local and Microsoft accounts, and the various ways the system gives you to lock down your device.

Your Account

When you first start Windows 8.1, you’re going to be required to set up an account. This can go one of two ways, you can either elect for a Microsoft account or a local one. Both have their pros and cons, which we’ll highlight in just a bit. Regardless of the account you create, if you want to administer to it, you can do so using the Your Account settings.

If you click on the link “more account settings online,” you will be transported to your account page on Microsoft’s website. Here you can fill out the rest of your account info.

Though you may be reluctant to give Microsoft information about yourself, you really only need to give them a few bits of personally identifiable information. Everything else is optional. For what it is worth, many of us use multiple Windows computers and it’s pretty nice to have the same account from machine to machine.

Also, while the local account option may seem safer and more private, the truth is you’re only as safe and private as your computing habits dictate. This means that even with a local account, you’re still vulnerable to online attacks and your machine can still be hacked if you don’t take precautions.

If you’re interested in learning even more about user accounts, we recommend you read this lesson from a recent How-To Geek School Series!

Options

Windows 8.1 include a bevy of options to log in to your devices. Not only can you use the tried-and-true password options but you can now switch things up and use a picture password and PIN and, if your device supports it, you’ll be able to use other methods as well, including fingerprint readers.

Despite all of these options, you will still have to have a master password, which the system will make you type in before you can set up any alternative sign-in options.

Picture Password

The picture password allows you to use a photo or drawing so that you can access your computer with a series of swipes and pokes.

This is particularly useful on touchscreens since you don’t have to enter your password every time.


As you may have gathered, a PIN is a 4-digit code that you can tap in to quickly access a locked device.

While certainly not as secure as a password, this again is likely more convenient than having to enter your password every time.


If your device comes with a fingerprint reader, you can train it to recognize your fingerprint.

This will obviously apply only to machines that have such capabilities but, if it does, this is where you’ll set it up versus the Control Panel in Windows 8 and earlier.

If you want to learn more about passwords and login alternatives on Windows 8.1, please read lesson 1 from our series on securing user accounts and passwords in Windows.

Other Accounts

If you want to administer other accounts on your system, or if you want to add another account, you will be able to perform those functions here.

There’s a couple of things you should bear in mind when setting up a new account. As we previously mentioned, a Microsoft account is basically a roaming account, which means you can log in to any Windows 8.x computer anywhere in the world and your settings, and even stuff like documents and pictures will be there.

You can, however, choose to eschew this and create a local account or, if you’re creating an account for you little ones, you can also set up a child’s account.

The following screenshot explains the crucial differences between local and Microsoft accounts but it basically goes like this: Microsoft accounts can go anywhere you sign in while local accounts stay on the computer you’re using.

We recommend going with the Microsoft account, you can use any e-mail address you like, and it’s very convenient if you have multiple computers that use Windows 8.1.

Assigned Access

Think of Assigned Access as a kind of kiosk mode, because that’s essentially what it is, except with assigned access, a user can only access one Windows Store app.

This is no doubt useful if you want to set up a device so that it works only one way and others can’t use it for other purposes. You could also assign a game or learning app to this account and let your kids go nuts, giving you a single-purpose child’s account that even they can’t hack (maybe)!

Child Accounts and Windows Family Safety

You may notice that when you create a new account, you can make it a child’s account. This means that Microsoft Family Safety will automatically be turned on and the account can be monitored by a child’s parent or guardian.

Family Safety can be opened from the Control Panel and is actually a pretty good set of parental controls, as in, you probably won’t need to look elsewhere unless you have a network of mixed devices such as Apple, Android, or even Linux.

Never-the-less, if you’re running primarily Windows machines, or that’s all your kids use, then you’re good to go.

If you open the Family Safety control panel, you’ll see you’re required to use the Family Safety website.

A child’s account is a local account meaning each child’s account will have to be recreated on each device they use. That way, each time the child uses a PC, you get reports specific to that device.

If you click on the child’s account, you’re given a wealth of options and ways to monitor a child’s activity.

Take the time limits settings for example, you can allow device use according to blocks of time allowances, or you can assign special curfew times during which computer access is blocked.

This is but one of several categories you can assert control over a child’s computer use. You can also, in addition to receiving activity reports and access requests, filter web access and impose app and game restrictions.

So, if you’re a parent and your child or children are at a vulnerable, impressionable age, Microsoft Family Safety is an excellent (if not one of the best) options you have to lock down, monitor, and control access and give you peace of mind.

OneDrive: The Cloud Service Formerly Known as SkyDrive

OneDrive is Microsoft’s cloud service though you may know it as SkyDrive. Microsoft had to change the name after a trademark dispute and the entire thing has been rebranded throughout the system. Now the Windows Store app bears the name OneDrive.

As you can see, even the OneDrive integration in File Explorer has even been updated to represent the change.

What we’re going to talk about in this next section are the OneDrive settings because they do actually have some significant impact on things such as local storage and profile synchronization.

Overall, OneDrive does have some great usefulness, so even if you don’t use the service to store your files, it still behooves you to learn about it.

File Storage

The File Storage settings let you view your storage use and buy more if needed. You can also elect to have your documents saved to OneDrive by default. This means your documents folder will be saved both locally and to the cloud, so if you log into another computer under your account, you’ll have instant access to whatever you’re currently working on.

If you’re thinking you need more storage space, then you can buy more. Just click the “buy more storage” button and you’ll be able to add more capacity with just a few clicks.

The nice thing about OneDrive is that if you a Windows-only household, then you’ve got a simple, seamless solution to share your stuff across all your devices, provided you are using a Microsoft account, of course.

Camera Roll

The Camera Roll settings allow you automatically upload your camera roll to OneDrive whenever you shoot any pictures from your computer. This is similar to the function you’ll find in the OneDrive app available for mobile devices only the camera roll is where pictures taken on Windows devices are stored.

You can also turn off video uploading, which is a probably a good idea if you don’t have a ton of space. You can learn more about backing up stuff automatically using OneDrive or other cloud services by reading this lesson from our How-To Geek School series on PC maintenance.

Sync Settings

We want to explain Sync Settings to you and impress that these are kind of important if you use a Microsoft account.

The Sync Settings are found in the OneDrive section because when you use a Microsoft account, everything you sync between your Windows computers is stored on your OneDrive.

There’s a lot here, let’s go through them briefly so you understand what’s what and how this works.

It’s important to understand that you can always sync your settings if you wish and simply turn them off on the machines to which you don’t want to apply them. This is true of all the sync settings.

Personalization settings

These settings are comprised of the Start screen, appearance, and desktop personalization settings. Each of these can be turned on or off. Basically, anything you do here is going to be reflected on all your other devices so if you want your machines to all retain unique appearances, you can turn to these first to ensure that happens.

App Settings

This simply applies to apps and app data, namely Windows Store apps. Basically, these settings allow you to sync the list of apps you’ve installed as well as any settings and in-app purchases you might have made.

Other Settings

Rounding things out, you can sync your web browser, passwords, language preferences, ease of access, and other Windows settings. Make sure you go through each one and understand what they all do. It’s probably safe to leave everything enabled but you may have other ideas.

Back Up Settings

Finally, you can back up all your settings to you OneDrive even if you’re not syncing them. This is a no-brainer and we recommend leaving this one on, it’s just another great way to minimize downtime between device failures.

Metered Connections

You can easily adjust how much bandwidth OneDrive uses on a metered connection such as uploading/downloading files and syncing settings.

You should definitely pay attention to these settings if you have a data cap or pay for bandwidth.

Ease of Access

The Ease of Access settings are very specific and are another settings area users will probably rarely visit. That said, they are very vital to certain users with disabilities and/or to those who have a hard time using Windows without assistance.

For the most part, we think that if you need to use Windows Ease of Access settings, then you’re already aware of the Control Panel version, but let’s take a few moments to talk about the Ease of Access PC Settings you will encounter.


Users who have trouble seeing can use Narrator to read screen elements such as text and buttons.

If you want to change settings, such as the voice tone and speed, you can do so here as well.

If you want to create your own keyboard commands, you need to adjust them in the control panel.

If you want to turn the narrator off, either “Exit” the control panel or tap the Narrator settings to “Off.”


The Magnifier is kind of cool just in general but it’s especially cool for individuals who have trouble making out small type.

You can adjust how the magnifier appears, the level of magnification, and other things from the desktop utility.

We like the magnifying glass view. This and zoom levels can be adjusted in the settings, which you can access by clicking the gear icon pictured above.

The magnifier options mean you can create narrower or wider glasses but of course, it is better to use a mouse or more precise pointing device to adjust these settings.

High Contrast

Another Ease of Access feature dedicated to making your computing experience more readable is High Contrast. Simply, the High Contrast settings allow you to change your screen elements so things stand out and apart from one another.

Basically, the PC Settings version of High Contrast lets you choose a theme and then adjust the color of each thing. Again, to dig deeper into the settings, open the control panel and choose “set up high contrast.”

The overarching focus of these settings are to “make the computer easier to see” so you will find other items devoted to the narrator and magnifier as well.


The on-screen keyboard is different from the touch keyboard that opens by default on touchscreens. As you can see, it’s a copy of the keyboard you probably physically type with.

The PC Settings let you enable the keyboard and turn on various “useful keys” functions.

A few additional options can be gleaned by clicking the “options” button on the on-screen keyboard.

If you were wondering whether there was a numeric key pad option, the answer is yes, and it can be turned on here.


The mouse settings allow you to adjust your mouse pointer’s size and color.

Additionally, there are other options you can employ that allows you to adjust how you can move the pointer around, how quickly it moves when you hold CTRL or SHIFT, and the ability to use the mouse keys when NUM LOCK is on.

Other Options

Lastly, the final Other Options let you adjust stuff that didn’t fit neatly into any of the previously discussed categories.

We like the ability to change the thickness of our cursor, which can make locating it in a busy field of text much easier. Note also, you can change the timeout for notifications, which would make more sense if it were actually in the Notifications PC Settings group.


That does it for today. You should now be more able to manage you accounts and OneDrive settings, including the very important sync settings, which tie directly to your Microsoft account. Take some time now to manage you accounts, adjust your sync settings, and maybe play around a bit with Ease of Access.

Tomorrow we’ll be focusing on Search and Apps settings, but mostly search in general. This includes a helpful exploration of Advanced Query Syntax (AQS) and the search indexer, as well as its associated control panel and options. The hopeful goal of this chapter is to teach you how you can search more effectively so that you can find stuff without a lot of hunting through File Explorer.

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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