Multiple user accounts were once impractical to use on Windows, but they aren’t anymore. If multiple people use your computer – particularly children or guests – you should give each person a separate user account.
This article focuses on details specific to Windows, but the same broad reasons apply on Mac OS X, Linux, and even Android tablets with their new multiple user accounts feature.
Why Not Just Use One Account?
If you use a single user account on your computer, everyone will share the same application settings, files, and system permissions.
- Application Settings: When you use a single user account, everyone using the computer will use the same browser. This allows other people to use your online accounts if you stay logged in, view your browser history, dig through your bookmarks, and more. if you use multiple user accounts, everyone will have their own browser, which they can log into without worry. The same is true for other applications, like email clients. Most programs will use different settings for each user account.
- Files: With multiple people sharing a single user account, no one really has any private files. Anyone using the same user account can view your files. If you use multiple user accounts, the other users won’t be able to view files stored in your user folder at C:\Users\Name. You won’t be able to view their files, either. This provides additional privacy if the other users are standard user accounts. Note that administrator users have full system permissions and can view all files on the computer.
- System Permissions: Other user accounts can be either standard or administrator accounts. If they’re standard accounts, you can use Windows’ built-in parental controls to set limits for your kids’ computer use and view information about it. Anyone else you allow to use your computer can have limited permissions so they can’t view your files, install software, or make other changes to your computer. This can be particularly useful if you want to lock down a computer so less-experienced users won’t install malware.
This is even more crucial on Windows 8, where you log in with a Microsoft account (like a Hotmail account) by default. If you sign in with your Hotmail account, you’ll remain logged into the modern Mail app while using the computer. Anyone using your user account could pop open the Mail app, even if you logged out of Hotmail or Microsoft’s Outlook.com in your browser.
With multiple user accounts, you can even see when a specific user last logged into your computer.
How Multiple Accounts Work
When you create additional user accounts, you will be able to log into them from the Windows login screen. You can be logged into multiple user accounts at once – if you lock the screen and another user logs in, the programs on your original desktop will remain running while they use their separate desktop.
User accounts can be either system administrators or standard user accounts. System administrators have full access to the system, while standard user accounts have limited access and need administrator permission to install software, change certain system settings, view files they don’t have access to, and so on.
For example, if you create standard user accounts on your computer and reserve administrator permissions for your user account, you’ll have to type your account’s password whenever a standard user wants to install software, make system settings changes, or do anything else that’s off-limits.
Each user account has its own separate folder under the C:\Users folder. A user account’s personal files – such as its My Documents, Downloads, and Desktop folders are stored in here. Most applications store their data and settings in a user-specific application data folder, so each user can have their own program settings and data. Note that some badly designed applications (particularly older games) may store their save files in one location for all users on the system, as this was how many Windows applications functioned in the past.
Guest accounts are a special type of user account intended for people using your computer temporarily. If you have a guest who wants to use your computer to browse the web or check their email, you can give them access to the guest account rather than allowing them to use your current account or creating a new account just for them.
This ensures they won’t snoop through your private data, even accidentally. Computers are intensely personal things, and giving someone access via a guest account will allow you to relax instead of looking over their shoulder and worrying they’ll accidentally open your email or see an incoming private message. Guest accounts also have limited access, so people can’t install software or change system settings.
Because of the ability to log into multiple user accounts at once, you won’t even have to log out to let them use your computer. Just lock your screen and allow your guest to log into the guest account. Your programs will remain running in the background, and you can log out of the guest account and unlock your main user account’s desktop session when they’re done.
The guest account is disabled by default in Windows. To use it, you’ll need to enable it from the Users Accounts screen in the control panel. To do so, select User Accounts in the Control Panel, click Change account type, and select the Guest account. Click Turn On to enable it. It will appear on the lock screen, just like any other account.
It’s interesting that Windows’ support for multiple user accounts works so well now, when so many people have their own personal laptops. Back in the Windows 98 days, when more people shared desktop computers in a household, good support for multiple user accounts would have been more useful.
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 04/3/13