Introducing Windows 8.1: Should You Use a Local or a Microsoft Account?

user accountsWindows 8.1 offers you a choice that has not been available in older versions of Windows. Right from the start, before you even log in and see the operating system's interface, you'll have to choose whether you want to log in using a local account or a Microsoft account. Users who don't plan on taking advantage of the new Windows 8.1 apps and don't want to use most of its new features, will be more comfortable using a local account, which works just like any account you've ever had on a previous version of Windows. But is there any value in using a Microsoft account? Let's take a deep dive into the differences between these two account types and see when to use each of the options.

What is a Local Account?

A local account is the same as any account you've ever used to log into a Windows operating system. It grants you access to the system's resources in your own user space. You can install desktop applications, change settings and work as usual. While you won't miss out on any features that you're used to from previous version, you won't have access to many new features that Windows 8.1 has to offer.

Local accounts work on a single system only, so if you do have multiple devices, you'll have to create a separate local account for each.

What is a Microsoft Account?

A Microsoft account is basically a rebranding of any of a number of previous accounts for Microsoft products. If you've ever had an Xbox Live account, a Windows Live ID, a Hotmail account, a Microsoft Passport or any other Microsoft related account, then you've already got a Microsoft account. By rebranding and combining all of these separate accounts, Microsoft allows for complete integration of all of their services into a single account. This way, when you log in once, you get access to everything you need. If you want more information, read this article: What is a Windows Live ID or a Microsoft account?.

A Microsoft account uses an email address rather than a username to log in. While most accounts will be made using Microsoft email addresses including hotmail.com, live.com or outlook.com, you can use any email address to create yours. Whether you prefer Yahoo!, Gmail or even an ISP specific email address, it makes no difference.

Four Reasons to Use a Microsoft Account

Here are the reasons why we think it is worth using a Microsoft account in Windows 8.1:

  1. Synchronizing Windows 8.1 settings and data - When you first set up your new Windows 8.1 computer or device, there are a lot of details you have to be aware of. You have to personalize your background, change update settings, change the Homegroup and networking settings, configure devices and also select your time and language settings. Getting everything set up the way you like can take a significant amount of time and there is no way around that. Plus, it's really not that fun to do all of these things every time you buy a new computer or device or when you need to reinstall the operating system.

    Windows 8.1, user accounts, local account, Microsoft account, difference

    However, with a valid Microsoft account you only have to go through that process once. After configuring a Windows 8.1 computer or device that is linked to your Microsoft account, you can log in to any Windows 8.1 computer or device that's connected to the Internet and your settings will be migrated automatically and synced between them. So much for needing to make the same choices multiple times!

    You can even sync passwords for websites, apps and networks between devices, but you'll have to trust your PC first.

    Windows 8.1, user accounts, local account, Microsoft account, difference

  2. Download Windows 8.1 apps from the Windows Store - You may be wondering why you need a fancy extra account to download apps onto a computer or device. After all, there are plenty of free programs available to anyone online. While this is true, there is an important difference between Windows 8.1 apps, which are a new feature of this operating system and traditional Desktop applications which are what you have been using before Windows 8 first hit the market.

    Windows 8.1, user accounts, local account, Microsoft account, difference

    Windows 8.1 apps are small programs that are just like anything you've ever downloaded from Apple's App Store or Google's Play Store. An important aspect of these apps is that you cannot download an installation kit for them and transfer them to another computer or device. However, most of them are small, so they take up minimal resources and they run in full-screen mode. They can take a bit of time to figure out and get used to, but they can be a lot of fun and really useful.

    Windows 8.1, user accounts, local account, Microsoft account, difference

    You can browse the Windows Store with a local account, but if you want to download and install something, you'll need to upgrade.

    Windows 8.1, user accounts, local account, Microsoft account, difference

  3. Full access to bundled Windows 8.1 apps, features and services - While we've already discussed that you'll need a Microsoft account to download new Windows 8.1 apps from the Store, you'll also be interested to know that even some of the apps that come bundled with the operating system won't work unless you are using a Microsoft account.

    Windows 8.1, user accounts, local account, Microsoft account, difference

    Many useful apps like Calendar, Mail, and People will require you to enter Microsoft account information before you can begin to use them. Even Music has more to offer Microsoft account users.

    Windows 8.1, user accounts, local account, Microsoft account, difference

    While you do need an account for these apps to function fully, it does bear mentioning that you can simply enter your account information into the apps and still log in with a local account.
    While the three previously mentioned features are great for all users, parents may also be interested in the enhanced Family Safety features that you can access with a Microsoft account. With a local account you can still utilize many of the local features for parental controls, but with a Microsoft account you can take it to the next level. You can remotely manage your parental control settings as well as receive reports about your children's usage in your inbox.

  4. Access to unified apps and games for Windows, Windows Phone & Xbox - If you have other Microsoft devices like Windows Phone and Xbox One, then it makes even more sense to use a Microsoft account. With Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has introduced the concept of unified apps. This means that one app can be made available on all Microsoft's platforms. You as a user purchase it once, from any Microsoft device and you pay only one license cost. The app is then available on all the Microsoft devices you are using. Also, your settings and data will be synchronized across devices, as we mentioned earlier. This way you will save a lot of money when purchasing apps, as you won't have to buy the same app twice: once for Windows 8.1 and once for Windows Phone 8.1.

Who Would Want a Local Account?

Now that you've seen what a Microsoft account can do for you, you may wonder why Microsoft even includes an option to use a local account. Who, when given the option, would choose limited functionality over cross-platform integration? The answer is likely a lot of people.
Many users only have or want a single computer. For them, the exciting synchronization feature will be useless. Some users may even like the idea of having separate accounts on separate computers. If the laptop is for work and the desktop is for play, syncing settings won't be that useful.
Windows 8.1 apps are a feature that take some time getting used to. On a desktop computer their functions aren't as intuitive and they may not entice all users. To folks not interested in them, the inability to download apps from the Store won't be an issue.
Also, there are a lot of users who won't like Windows 8.1 because it's not what they're used to. For those users, who want this new operating system to work and feel as much as possible like Windows 7 and earlier, a local account will work just fine.

Conclusion

While the Microsoft account may not be for everyone, it is something that should at least be considered. The ability to sync passwords, settings and even wallpapers between computers and devices is extremely useful and a great time saver. Though the Windows Store may not yet have anything near the quality and quantity of offerings that Apple or Google have in their app stores, there are plenty of great apps available now that will keep you interested as developers create new ones.
How do you feel about logging in with a Microsoft account? Do you find the new features to be useful or more trouble than they're worth? Drop your comments or questions below and we'll gladly reply!