The Difference between Local and Microsoft Accounts in Windows

Which Windows Account Type Is Right For You?

Microsoft or Local account
Image courtesy of Microsoft. Robert Kingsley

When installing or starting up Windows 8/8.1 or 10 for the first time, you’ll have to make a choice that you’ve never had before. Do you want to use a local or Microsoft Account? This choice will be a bit baffling as Microsoft Accounts are a new feature and Microsoft really doesn't want you to use a local account in Windows 10. It's a little confusing and you may not know which way to go. In fact, you may be tempted to simply go with whatever's easiest, but that would be a mistake. The wrong choice here may force you to miss out on a lot of great features offered by your new OS.

What is a Local Account?

If you've ever signed-in to a home computer running Windows XP or Windows 7 then you’ve used a local account. The name may throw off novice users, but it’s nothing more than an account to access the computer in front of you. A local account works on that specific computer and no others.

Choose a local account if you want to keep things like they were on previous versions of Windows. You’ll be able to log in, change your settings, install software, and keep your user area separate from others on the system, but you’ll be missing out on a bunch of features made possible by Microsoft Accounts. 

What is a Microsoft Account?

A Microsoft Account is just a new name for what used to be called the Windows Live ID. If you've ever used services such as Xbox Live, Hotmail,, OneDrive or Windows Messenger, you've already got a Microsoft Account. Microsoft has simply combined all of their services together allowing you to access them with a single account. Just one email address and password.

Obviously, having a Microsoft Account means you’ll have easier access to all of Microsoft’s various services, but using it with Windows 8/8.1 or 10 provides a few more perks.

Access to the Windows Store

Signing in to Windows 8/8.1 or 10 gives you access to the new Windows Store where you can download modern apps to your Windows 8 computer. These modern apps are similar to the apps you see in the Google Play Store or the iTunes App Store. The difference is Windows Store apps can be used on your PC--Windows 10 users can even treat them like regular desktop apps.

You’ll find thousands of free apps in categories including games, sports, social, entertainment, photo, music, and news. Some are paid apps, but many more are free of charge, and they’re all easy to use.

Free Cloud Storage

Setting up a Microsoft Account automatically awards you 5GB of storage space in the cloud free of charge. This service, known as OneDrive, allows you to store your files online so you can access them from your other devices.

Not only is your data easier to get to, but it’s also easier to share. OneDrive makes it easy to give your friends and family access to anything stored in the cloud. They can log in to view it or even download a copy for themselves.

OneDrive also provides tools for editing your files via Office Online: a suite of simplified Microsoft Office programs for editing or creating documents stored in OneDrive.

If you decide not to use a Microsoft Account with your PC, you can still get 5GB of free storage with OneDrive. Chances are you've already got it even if you don't realize it.

Sync Your Account Settings

Perhaps the most exciting feature of a Microsoft Account is that it allows you the freedom to store your Windows 8/8.1 or 10 account settings in the cloud. This means that you can log in to an account on one modern Windows computer, set it up the way you like it, and the changes you make there are stored in the cloud through a process that syncs your desktop with OneDrive.

Log in using the same Microsoft Account on another Windows device, and your settings follow you.  Your wallpaper, themes, update settings, Start screen tile arrangement, Internet Explorer history, and language preferences will all be set up just the way you like.

Windows 8.1 and 10 take account makes sync even better by allowing you to sync network profiles, passwords, and even Windows store app settings between accounts. Windows 10 also allows you to share Wi-Fi passwords seamlessly in the background with your friends and colleagues.

Which Account Type Should You Choose?

While it’s obvious that the Microsoft Account offers a lot of features that a local account does not, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. If you don’t care about Windows Store apps, only have one computer and don’t need access to your data anywhere but your home, then a local account will work just fine. It’ll get you into Windows and provide you with a personal space to call your own. If you’re interested in the new features that Windows 8/8.1 or 10 have to offer though, then you’ll need a Microsoft Account to take full advantage of them.

Updated by Ian Paul.