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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Multiple Users in Windows

So, if you're like me, you have a common computer at home. Probably have multiple users too. While two adults can theoretically share a computer effectively, I've never seen it happen without sacrifice, patience and frustration. Now at home, I have three users on our computer: myself, my spouse, and my four year-old. Sharing one profile would be a nightmare!

Well, Windows has in it all the tools you need to solve this problem, if you just know how to find them. Operating systems are designed to have multiple users (well, real operating systems; Microsoft thought only business users needed them until Windows 2000). To keep up-times high at home, you also need to employ profiles.

Here's how:

  1. Consider your users

    Is it just you? You and a spouse/significant other? Do you have guests? Teenagers? Small children? What level of experience do you/they have?

    I see four levels of computer ability:

    • Expert

      They know stuff, aren't intimidated by OS changes, and are often familiar with several OSs (Windows, *nix, Mac); understands computers at a fundamental level and can troubleshoot problems at a system-wide level; they can be trusted with system level access and have no bad intentions.

    • Wannabe

      They think they know stuff, and may actually know some stuff; they are typically good with one operating system (usually Windows); they don't understand the lower-level stuff, but can make a good run at system-wide troubleshooting; typically not trusted with system level access, but usually harmless when they make mistakes.

    • Emailer

      They can surf the web, install basic programs, do all of the fun fancy things that computers can do; the computer is more of a toy than a tool, though some legitimate use may be seen (work, school, home organization software, etc.); troubleshooting often involves restarting the program or rebooting, maybe even a reinstall of a troublesome program; usually not given system level access, but they're usually glad not to have it.

    • Explorer

      These come in two varieties: malignant and benign. Malignant explorers are like script kiddies who have nothing better to do than to make your life more difficult. Benign explorers are like children (but not necessarily are) who enjoy using a computer, but simply don't know what they're doing, and may see no harm in making uneducated changes to the system (e.g. not understanding the consequences of their actions).

    Whatever the level, just make sure that you keep their needs in mind. We also find people who exhibit traits and behaviors of all of these levels (like myself). Now, don't get offended if you're an "emailer"; it does not poorly reflect on you as a person. Good grief, they're just generalizations! With time, almost anyone can become an expert. You just need a little "guidance".

  2. Make everyone a profile

    First rule: never use the administrator account. It's there for a reason (for administration, not use), and if you mess it up, you'll be in a world of hurt (unless you know how to reinstall Windows).

    To make everyone a profile (in XP), go to:

    1. Start > All Programs > Control Panel
      (or Start > Settings > Control Panel if you have the old menus)
    2. Open the Users Accounts control panel (you'll see a list of current profiles)
    3. Click "Add User" to create a new profile

      Unfortunately, in XP you can either be an Administrator, or a User without doing some tweaking. User accounts are too limiting, and administrators are too open for Explorers (and some Emailers). But, we have to start somewhere, so just create an administrator profile.

    4. Give the user a name
    5. Choose a fun picture for use on the Welcome Screen (if you don't use the Welcome screen, then no loss with the picture)
    6. Giving a password is recommended, but optional. It all depends on your level of security and audience!
    7. Close the User Accounts control panel
    8. Logout of the computer (Start > Logout > Log Off)
    9. Log into the new account and customize the desktop, etc. as needed.
    10. Reinstall any programs you find missing. They're actually still installed, but reinstalling them will help make the shortcuts and registrations right for the current user.

  3. Take it down a notch

    If you're working with a benign Explorer or Emailer, you'll probably want to turn down the user access level to protect the system. You'll make them a Power User instead of an Administrator. This is typically a good balanced profile between Administrators and Users. Just log into one of your administrator accounts (either Administrator or a normal administrative account) and do the following:
    • Right-click My Computer and chose Manage
    • In the Computer Management Console, expand Local Users and Groups on the left
    • Click on Users to see a list of profiles on the computer. Note that there are some weird ones already on there. Just ignore them for now - they're a discussion for another day.
    • Find the user profile you just created and open it up
    • Click the Member Of tab
    • Click the Add... button
    • Click the Advanced button
    • In the Select Groups dialog box, click the Find Now button (you'll see a list of options appear at the bottom)
    • Find and click on the Power Users entry and click OK, and OK again on the Select Groups dialog box
    • Back in the Properties dialog box, click on the Administrators entry in the Member Of list and click the Remove button
    • Click OK to close the dialog
    • Log out, and log back in as that user

    Your new user will now be more isolated and unable to make important system-level changes. Here's some info on what a Power User is in Windows.

    If you have a malicious Explorer, then a user account is just what they need. And, all other accounts need a password, especially your administrator accounts. If it's really that bad, consider a computer ban. It's okay to ban someone from using your computer if they can't be trusted with it.

  4. Tune it with addons

    Now, there's a neat thing about having your own profiles: applications can be user-specific. For example, I have Firefox all "dumbed down" for my four year-old. However, I don't have those restrictions, because she has her own account. Also, I have a completely different theme than my spouse or child (or even administrator).

    Now, the obvious downside is the you might have to install some programs multiple times. Well, that's a price I'm willing to pay to have the added convenience and security using profiles offers. Just make sure that each profile is setup, security-wise: at least an antivirus and firewall.

    Suggestions if you have kids

    For kids, consider installing Glubble for Firefox, or at the very least a restrictive internet filter like ProCon (I use this one myself!) That can help keep your kids safe when you can't watch over their shoulder.

    Again, don't be afraid to tell your kids (no matter how old they are) 'no'! It's okay to set standards on your computer and disallow certain activities. Of course, if your kids are grounded from the computer, you can always add a password to their profile so they can't get in when you're not looking. Just use the User Accounts control panel when you're logged in with an administrative-level account and change their profile. Great way to use computer time as a reward for good behavior.

    We also use the multiple profile thing to our advantage with my four year-old. We have fun programs setup just for her: TuxPaint, Publix Preschool Pals, Some BigFish games, and even a link to her favorite website, However, since my spouse and I are often logged in, she has to ask our permission to log us off to log into her profile. Give her an extra obstacle, and it makes her computer time more special and better moderated. No excessive use, because we just kick her off when we need it!

  5. If it's broke, fix it!

    Now, if a particular user starts having problems, it's easy enough just to delete the user's profile and make a new one. Usually, if one user's profile is completely dead, the others are still intact. Sometimes a good spring cleaning will keep things working well.
So, that's about it. Multiple profiles can be a pain. User switching, multiple installs, etc. But, in the end, it can bring sanity back to computer use. At least you won't have anyone breaking your stuff when you're not there!

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