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Understanding Windows User Accounts

A user account is simply a name (called a username) by which a given user is known to a computer. Most often the user must also supply a password to log on to the computer; the logon procedure consists of entering the username and password, which are then recognized (or not) by the host computer.

That said, user accounts work somewhat differently in Windows Vista than they do in Windows XP. Read on to learn the differences—and the similarities.

Types of User Accounts

In Windows Vista, you can create two types of user accounts—Administrator and Standard. In Windows XP, these two account types are called Administrator and Limited, and perform similar functions.

A person with a Standard or Limited account can perform most general computing tasks, such as running programs, opening documents, and the like. A Standard-level account can't make any changes that might affect other users or the security of the computer or network, such as installing new programs or deleting important files. He can change his own account picture and password, but can't change his account type or edit others' accounts. In other words, a Standard user can only use the PC, not modify it.

A person with an Administrator account, on the other hand, has permission by Windows to perform any function, including installing programs and modifying or deleting files. Administrators have complete access to the computer and can make changes that might affect other users—as well as the PC's security. He can access all system files, create and delete user accounts, and create passwords for other user accounts.

Enhanced Security with Vista's User Account Control (UAC)

One big difference between Windows Vista and Windows XP is the feature called User Account Control (UAC). As you might suspect this feature is tied into the concept of user accounts and enhances the security of Vista-based systems. UAC is designed to prevent unauthorized people and processes from taking control of a computer and then installing and running malicious programs.

In Windows XP, all users were automatically assigned Administrator status. (Although you could manually choose to create a new Limited account, the Administrator level was the default.) This resulted in rampant security problems because users could inadvertently install malicious software and spyware on their system—and that software could then take control of the PC, using the original user's Administrator privileges.

With UAC, new users are automatically assigned Standard-level access, not Administrator access. (You can manually choose to create a new Administrator account, of course.) This blocks the average user from executing tasks that could damage the system—and improves system security.

More important, Windows Vista doesn't automatically accede to all Administrator-level requests. When any user—even an Administrator—attempts to perform an administrative-level task (such as installing a new software program, changing system settings, or deleting a system file), User Account Control presents a dialog box that says Windows needs your permission to continue. The task will not be executed until the user clicks Continue.

In addition, Vista doesn't give Administrator status to software programs, as Windows XP did. In XP, any program could launch another program or make system-level changes without the user ever knowing it. With Vista's UAC, you're asked to approve any such changes made by software programs—which should cut down on spyware and viruses trying to take over your computer system.

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