Group Policy is a Windows feature that contains a variety of advanced settings, particularly for network administrators. However, local Group Policy can also be used to adjust settings on a single computer.

Group Policy isn’t designed for home users, so it’s only available on Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise versions of Windows.

Centralized Group Policy

If you’re using a Windows computer in an Active Directory environment, Group Policy settings can be defined on the domain controller. Network administrators have one place where they can configure a variety of Windows settings for every computer on the network. These settings can also be enforced, so users can’t change them. For example, using group policy, a network administrator can block access to certain sections of the Windows control panel, or set a specific website as the home page for every computer on the network.

This can be useful for locking down computers, restricting access to specific folders, control panel applets, and applications. It can also be used to change a variety of Windows settings, including ones that can’t be changed from the control panel or require registry tweaks to change.

Many Group Policy settings actually change registry values in the background — in fact, you can see which registry value a group policy setting changes. However, Group Policy provides a more user-friendly interface and the ability to enforce these settings.

Local Group Policy

Group Policy isn’t only useful for networks of computers in businesses or schools, however. If you’re using a Professional version of Windows, you can use the local Group Policy Editor to change Group Policy settings on your computer.

Using Group Policy, you can tweak some Windows settings that aren’t normally available from the graphical interface. For example, if you want to set a custom login screen in Windows 7, you can either use the Registry Editor or the Group Policy Editor — it’s easier to change this setting in the Group Policy Editor. You can also tweak other areas of Windows 7 with the Group Policy Editor — for example, you can hide the notification area (also known as the system tray) entirely.

The local Group Policy Editor can also be used to lock down a computer, just as you’d lock down a computer on an enterprise network. This can be useful if you have children using your computer. For example, you can allow users to run only specific programs, restrict access to specific drives, or enforce user account password requirements, including setting a minimum length for passwords on the computer.

Using Local Group Policy

To access the local Group Policy Editor on your Windows computer (assuming you’re using a Professional edition of Windows or better, not a Home version), open the Start menu, type gpedit.msc, and press Enter.

If you don’t see the gpedit.msc application, you’re using a Home edition of Windows.

You probably shouldn’t dig through the Group Policy Editor and look for settings to change, but if you see an article on the web recommending you change a Group Policy setting to achieve a specific goal, this is where you can do it.

Group Policy settings are broken up into two sections — the Computer Configuration section controls computer-specific settings, while the User Configuration section controls user-specific settings.

For example, Internet Explorer settings are located under Administrative Templates\Windows Components\Internet Explorer

You can change a setting by double-clicking it, selecting a new option, and clicking OK.

This is just scratching the surface of what you can do with Group Policy — we’ve also covered enabling auditing from the Group Policy editor to see who logged into your computer and when.

You should now have a better understanding of Group Policy, what you can do with it, and how it differs from the registry editor, which isn’t designed for easy editing of settings by hand.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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