This How-To Geek School class is intended for people who have their own home network with at least one Windows PC or device. The end objective is to give you the knowledge you need in order to set up sharing in Windows and be able to share files, folders, and devices with other PCs or devices in your home network, regardless of the operating system.
In this first lesson you will learn what a user account is and what the most important characteristics of a user account are. Then, we will go into detail about the types of user accounts that are available in Windows and what’s different from this perspective in Windows 8 versus Windows 7. As you will see, the newest versions of Windows have added new user types that are very different than what you have been accustomed to in the past.
Next, we will explain the concepts of user groups and permissions. As you will see, these concepts are important when sharing with others on the network.
Last but not least we will explain the benefits of using a Microsoft account in Windows 8, related to network sharing.
Let’s get started!
What is a User Account?
A user account is a collection of settings and information that tells Windows which files and folders you can access, what you can do on your computer, what are your preferences, and what network resources you can access when connected to a network.
The user account allows you to authenticate to Windows or any other operating system so that you are granted authorization to use them. Multi-user operating systems such as Windows don’t allow a user to use them without having a user account.
In Windows, you can manage your computer’s user accounts by going to the “Control Panel” and then to “User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts.”
A user account in Windows is characterized by the following attributes:
- User name – the name you are giving to that account.
- Password – the password associated with the user account (in Windows 7 or older versions you can also use blank passwords).
- User group – a collection of user accounts that share the same security rights and permissions. A user account must be a member of at least one user group.
- Type – all user accounts have a type which defines their permissions and what they can do in Windows.
Windows 7 User Accounts
Windows 7 and earlier versions has three important types of accounts:
The “Administrator” user account has complete control over the PC. He or she can install anything and make changes that affect all users of that PC.
The “Standard” user account can only use the software that’s already installed by the administrator and change system settings that don’t affect other users.
The “Guest” account is a special type of user account that has the name Guest and no password. This is only for users that need temporary access to the PC. This user can only use the software that’s already installed by the administrator and cannot make any changes to system settings.
Windows 8 User Accounts
Windows 8 introduces two new types of user accounts, alongside those already in Windows 7:
Microsoft accounts are user accounts with an associated e-mail address that give you access to all Microsoft products and services. They always have password that’s not blank. If you are using an outlook.com e-mail address (let’s say email@example.com), you have a Microsoft account with that address.
To further complicate things, Microsoft allows people to create Microsoft accounts using third-party e-mail services like Gmail. To simplify things for you, remember that you have a Microsoft account when you use an email address to log into Windows or to any Microsoft product or service.
Microsoft accounts work on multiple systems and devices. Therefore you can use the same account to log into all your Windows 8.x devices, your Xbox One console and your Windows Phone. You don’t have to create a separate account for each device.
Microsoft accounts can be administrators or standard user accounts.
Local accounts are classic user accounts that exist locally and can use blank passwords. For example, in Windows 7 all user accounts are local accounts. Local accounts can be administrators or standard user accounts. They work on a single system only, so if you do have multiple devices, you’ll have to create a separate account for each.
User accounts provide the added benefit of letting you share the same computer with several people, while having your own files and settings. Each person accesses his or her user account without interfering with others.
How to tell them apart?
In Windows 8.x you can quickly differentiate local user accounts from Microsoft accounts by looking at whether they use an email address or not. Look at the screenshot below, sharing the Manage Accounts window, which is accessed by going to “Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts > Manage Accounts.”
The first account, named Ciprian Rusen, is a Microsoft account. All the other user accounts are local accounts. The Microsoft account is an administrator, which is marked by the “Administrator” statement beneath its email address. All other user accounts are standard user accounts because they do not have the “Administrator” statement.
What is a User Group?
As mentioned earlier, the user group is a collection of user accounts that share the same security rights and permissions.
Windows has a long list of predefined user groups which includes “Administrators” and “Users.” However, most predefined user groups do not have user accounts until the administrator or third-party apps start customizing them. User groups can also be created by third-party software and services like virtual machines which create hidden user accounts and groups in order to provide different features or services.
A user account is a member of at least one user group while some user accounts are members of two groups or more, depending on how they are set.
For example, all user accounts that are set as administrators will be part of the “Administrators” group. Standard user accounts are part of the “Users” group. However, both types of user accounts will become members of the “HomeUsers” group, when you start using the Homegroup networking feature in Windows.
User groups are managed automatically by Windows and you won’t need to fiddle with them, even though you can if you are an administrator. This concept is important so that you better understand how file sharing works, how permissions are assigned, etc.
What are File & Folder Permissions?
Permissions are a method for assigning access rights to specific user accounts and user groups. Through the use of permissions, Windows defines which user accounts and user groups can access which files and folders, and what they can do with them. To put it simply, permissions are the operating system’s way of telling you what you can or cannot do with a file or folder.
To learn the permissions of any folder, right click on it and select “Properties.” In the Properties window, go to the Security tab. In the “Group or user names” section you will see all the user accounts and use groups that have permissions to that folder. If you select a group or a user account, then see its assigned permissions, in the “Permissions for Users” section.
In Windows, a user account or a user group can receive one of the following permissions to any file or folder:
- Read – allows the viewing and listing of a file or folder. When viewing a folder, you can view all its files and subfolders.
- Write – allows writing to a file or adding files and subfolders to a folder.
- List folder contents – this permission can be assigned only to folders. It permits the viewing and listing of files and subfolders, as well as executing files that are found in that folder.
- Read & execute – permits the reading and accessing of a file’s contents as well as its execution. When dealing with folders, it allows the viewing and listing of files and subfolders, as well as the execution of files.
- Modify – when dealing with files, it allows their reading, writing and deletion. When dealing with folders, it allows the reading and writing of files and subfolders, plus the deletion of the folder.
- Full control – it allows reading, writing, changing and deleting of any file and subfolder.
Generally, files inherit the permissions of the folder where they are placed, but users can also define specific permissions that are assigned only to a specific file. To make your computing life simpler, it is best to edit permissions only at a folder level.
Why are Permissions Important to Sharing in Windows?
Permissions are important because when you share something in Windows, you actually assign a set of permissions to a specific user account or user group. A shared folder can only be accessed by someone with a user account that has the permission to access that folder.
For example, when using the Sharing Wizard, you choose the user name or the user group and then one of these two permission levels:
- Read/Write – it is the equivalent of the “Modify” permission level.
- Read – it is the equivalent of the “Read & execute” permission level.
When using the Sharing Wizard you will also see a permission level named “Owner.” This is not a permission level per-se. It just signals that the folder you are about to share is owned by the user account for which you see this entry. An owner has full control over that folder. You will learn more about the Sharing Wizard and how to use it in lesson 6.
When using advanced sharing, you can assign one of these three permission levels:
- Full Control – it allows reading, writing, changing, and deleting of any file and subfolder.
- Change – it is the equivalent of the Modify permission level.
- Read – it is the equivalent of the Read & execute permission level.
When sharing resources with the network, you will encounter a special group that’s named “Everyone.” This user group stands for anyone with or without a user account on the computer who is sharing the resource with the network. As you will learn in future lessons, this user group is very useful when you have a network with very diverse devices and operating systems. Advanced sharing will be explained in detail, in lesson 7.
Why is it Useful to Use a Microsoft Account in Your Network?
Using a Microsoft account has both benefits (e.g. the ability to sync all your apps and settings across multiple devices) and downsides (e.g. you will give more data to Microsoft). From a network sharing perspective, using a Microsoft account can be useful if you have a network with many PCs and devices with Windows 8.x:
- You log in with the same Microsoft account on all your devices, using the same credentials.
- You don’t have to create separate local accounts on each computer or device with Windows 8.x.
- Setting up permissions when sharing is easier because you don’t have to deal with multiple local user accounts.
- Accessing network shares is also easier because you log in with the same user account everywhere and you can quickly access everything that’s shared with it.
If you have a very diverse network that includes Macs, Chromebooks or Linux PCs alongside Windows, then using a Microsoft account doesn’t provide any special benefits from a network sharing perspective.
Coming up next …
That’s it for this lesson. For the remainder of this series, we will concentrate on the following areas:
Lesson 2: This lesson explains concepts like the workgroup, the computer name, the IP address, the network location and the Homegroup. You will learn what they are and their role in network sharing.
Lesson 3: We cover in detail all the network sharing settings available in Windows and how to set them according to your needs. Also, you will learn how to change the network location so that you get access to network sharing features only when they are needed.
Lesson 4: This lessons explains the Public folder and its role in network sharing. After learning how it can be used and when, you can decide whether it makes sense to use it or not.
Lesson 5: We continue our coverage of the Homegroup and we explain in detail how to use it to share with others on the network.
Lesson 6: Windows includes the Sharing Wizard that can be used to sharing any folder you want, as fast as possible. This lesson shares everything you need to know about using it.
Lesson 7: If you are a geek or an IT professional that needs to share folders and devices using more advanced permissions, you should use Advanced Sharing. This lessons shares everything you need to know about using it.
Lesson 8: Mapping network drives is an easy way of accessing folders shared by others on the network. This lesson explains how to map a shared folder from the network.
Lesson 9: You will surely need to share devices such as printers with others on the network. This lesson is focused on explaining how to share devices with others on the network.
Lesson 10: The last lesson is all about accessing shared folders and network resources.