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Choosing a User Account Type in Windows Vista

By Andy Rathbone

When you’re setting up a Windows Vista user account (or even modifying your own), there are many things to keep in mind about the different kinds of user accounts available to you. Security’s everywhere in Vista, which contains more warning signs than an electric fence. A big part of that security system is devoted to the way Vista handles user accounts.

Vista allows several people with separate user accounts to share one computer without letting anybody peek into anybody else’s files. User accounts allow each user to personalize their part of the computer the way they like while preventing them from fiddling with anyone else’s stuff.

Windows Vista offers three types of user accounts: Administrator, Standard, and Guest. What difference does the type of account make? Well, Windows Vista gives each type of account permission to do different things on the computer. Think of the computer as an apartment building, the Administrator account would belong to the manager, each tenant would have a Standard account, and Guest accounts would belong to visitors trying to use the bathroom in the lobby.

Here’s how the different accounts translate into computer lingo:

  • Administrator: The administrator controls the entire computer, deciding who gets to use it and what each user can do. On a Vista computer, the owner usually holds the almighty Administrator account. He or she then sets up accounts for each household member.

  • Standard: Standard accounts can use most of the computer, but they can’t make any big changes to it. They can’t install programs, for example, but they can still run them. (These were called Limited accounts in Windows XP.)

  • Guest: Guests can use the computer, but the computer doesn’t recognize them by name. Guest accounts function much like Standard accounts, but with no privacy: Anybody can log on with the Guest account, and the desktop will look the way the last guest left it.

In Windows Vista, new accounts are automatically granted Standard account status. This is different from the way Windows XP handled accounts. To create an Administrator account in Vista, you must specifically click the Administrator Account button.

When you’re trying to decide how to set up your new account, keep this in mind. If you’re logged in as an Administrator when an evil piece of software slips into your computer, that malware has control over all the same things you do. That’s dangerous because Administrator accounts can delete just about anything. To protect yourself and your precious data, Microsoft suggests creating two accounts for yourself: An Administrator account and a Standard account.

For everyday computing, log on with your Standard account. If the computer is about to do something potentially harmful, Vista will ask you to type the password of an Administrator account. Type your Administrator account’s password, and Vista lets you proceed. But if Vista unexpectedly asks for permission to do something odd, you know something may be suspect.

Having a second account is inconvenient, no doubt about it. But so is reaching for a key whenever you enter your front door. Taking an extra step is the price of extra security.