Windows 10's sign-in screen

Every time you turn on your computer, you have to choose a user account and sign in. That’s true on Windows, macOS, Linux, and even Chrome OS. Here’s why this is necessary for PCs but not iPhones, iPads, and Android.

They’re Designed for Multiple Users

Modern operating systems were designed for multiple users. Even if you only ever sign in to your Windows laptop with a single user account, Windows is built for more than that. This means that the same operating system works for a single person’s computer, a shared family PC, or an office workstation.

Different user accounts are continuously being used in the background. Most applications you use run with your user account’s security settings. Some run as Administrator, giving them full access to your system, and you have to agree to provide User Account Control (UAC) permission on Windows before launching those. Different background services and automated tasks run as different “user” accounts with different security settings.

Your password may be used for security in the background, too. For example, FileVault encryption is enabled by default on macOS. With this setting, your Mac’s files are encrypted until you enter your user account’s password. Without the password, you can’t “unlock” the disk and view the files. But FileVault doesn’t use a different password—it just uses your Mac’s regular password.

iOS and Android Have User Accounts, Too

Multiple user accounts on an Android phone

Apple’s iOS operating system and Google’s Android are different. They weren’t designed to be used by multiple people. First and foremost, they were built to run on a single person’s phone—or tablet. But, under the hood, both Apple’s iOS operating system and Google’s Android both use user accounts as well.

The process of booting and unlocking an iPhone, iPad, or Android device is similar to signing into a modern PC. You boot it up and have to enter a passcode before the device unlocks and becomes usable. The only difference is that you generally can’t select multiple user accounts when you boot up the device.

Those user accounts are sometimes visible. For example, iPads have a multi-user mode that can be used only by schools. Android offers multi-user support on both phones and tablets, although manufacturers like Samsung often remove this feature from their devices.

Even if you have no access to those multiple users, the base operating system uses them for different tasks. Google’s Android is based on Linux, and Apple’s iOS is also a Unix-like system based on BSD. Both are multi-user operating systems.

You Can Skip the Sign-In, But You Shouldn’t

Enabling automatic sign-in on Windows 10

It’s possible to sign in to your computer automatically, but it’s not the best idea. For example, you can automatically sign in to your Windows PC, but this stores your password on your computer in a way that any of your running programs can access it. Macs also let you enable automatic sign-in, but this requires disabling FileVault encryption because the password is required for that.

And of course, if someone gets access to your computer, they can turn it on and immediately start using it. That’s not great, especially if the computer is a laptop.

Make Signing In Faster and Easier

Even if you’re the only person who uses your PC, modern operating systems make it simple to ignore the other user accounts. Your computer will automatically select the user account you used last, and you just have to enter your password.

This can be a little annoying if your password is a long, strong one you use to secure your Microsoft account, Apple ID, or Google account. Modern computers let you make it easier.

We recommend setting a PIN on Windows 10 or enabling Windows Hello for a faster sign-in process. Modern Macs have TouchID fingerprint readers and can be unlocked with an Apple Watch for a quicker sign-in process. You can set a PIN for logging into your Chromebook or use Smart Lock to automatically unlock it with your Android phone, too.

After configuring these features, signing into your computer can feel just as easy and quick as unlocking your phone.

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, 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 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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