BOOT CAMP 526 (27/05/08)

User Accounts, and Password Recovery part 1


The only thing worse than a rickety computer is one that is clearly firing on all cylinders, but stubbornly refuses to let you access your files because you’ve forgotten your password. Actually there is something worse, being asked for a password when you didn’t (or don’t remember) setting one…


Welcome to the often confusing and sometimes frustrating world of Windows accounts and passwords. Over the next few episodes of Boot Camp we’ll be delving into this mysterious and murky realm, and – what many of you have been asking for – some advice on what to do when you are locked out of your computer.


But first, a brief guide to user accounts in Windows XP and Vista. In fact there are a number of significant differences between the two operating systems, and also within the various ‘Home’ and ‘Pro’ versions, and we’ll look at some of them as we go, but the basic concepts are the same.


During the ‘first run’ Windows asks you to enter your name and organisation and create a password for the all-important Administrator account. There are actually three types of accounts on a Windows XP PC, the aforementioned Administrator plus Limited Users and Guests, each with different access rights and privileges. See also this week’s Top Tip.


The Administrator is the boss of the computer, the Kahuna, the Big Cheese and the person who decides who else uses it. He or she is also the only one who can make changes to critical system settings, install software and hardware and much more besides. Windows XP allows more than one User account to have Administrator rights, sometimes without asking and generally speaking this is not a good idea. On a shared machine only one person should be in overall charge or chaos will surely ensue. Vista and Windows 7 are different, Users can have a range of Administrator rights, there’s also a hidden ‘Super Administrator’ account and we’ll look at that next week.


All frequent users of a shared computer, including the Administrator, should have their own individual User account. Each User can then customise Windows with their own background images, desktop layout, screensaver and email account as well as do all of the usual things, like access shared files (Documents, Pictures, Music etc.), write documents, surf the web, create their own Favourites lists and use most of the software on the PC. What they can’t do is interfere with critical system settings, they are limited in the programs and hardware they can install and they cannot access other Users protected files. If required the Administrator can set even more restrictions on a per-user basis. However, for most PC users this type of account gives them the freedom they need whilst protecting the system core, and other users.


Windows XP does not create a Guest account automatically but it’s easy enough for the Administrator to set one up, and there’s no need for a password. Guest accounts are meant for occasional and one-off users of a computer and provide only limited access to the computer. Nevertheless, Guests can still surf the web, write documents and so on but just about everything else, including other Users protected files are strictly off limits.


Broadly speaking it works reasonably well (or at least it did in the very early days of Windows XP) and it means that on a typical family PC, for example, one or both parents will manage the Administrator account but each parent will also have their own Limited User account, so they can use their own background, desktop and screensaver, operate their own email accounts and keep their messages and documents separate and safe. Additional Limited User accounts are assigned to each child, and if one of the kid’s friends wants to use the computer they can do safely so via the Guest account.


Everyone has their own personal slice of Windows and in theory no one, except the Administrator can mess things up. In practice there are dozens of things that can go wrong but the big problem, with Windows XP, is that it is far too easy to assign Administrator rights to Limited User accounts. This makes the computer much more vulnerable to accidents and it compromises security.


The launch of XP in 2001 also coincided with the explosive growth of broadband and the emergence of ‘Malware’. This is malicious software that gets into a computer, silently and stealthily via pop-ups on web pages. All a user has to do is innocently click on a button and hey-presto, the whole computer, and not just one User’s part of it, is infected.


The big change in Windows Vista is User Account Control (UAC) and this seeks to prevent mishaps and tighten up security by making sure that only a User with Administrator rights can install software, drivers or services that affect the whole system. It also makes it much harder for malware to get into the system. UAC also has an extra failsafe and any attempt to change system files generates an on screen message that requires consent from a User with administrative rights, so changes cannot be made unwittingly or by accident. . Well, that’s the basic idea anyway but there’s much more to it (see this Microsoft article), and a lot that can go wrong…



Next Week – User Accounts and Password Recovery, pt 2

Part 2 3 4 5





Hawaiian word for expert, wizard, magician, priest or sorcerer



Uninvited advertisement or message that appears whilst browsing web pages



Critical files that configure and control a computer operating system



If you leave the Admin password box blank during the first run of Windows XP or Vista it assumes that you are the sole user and usually – but not always – that is the last time you’ll be asked for a password. If you do create one choose something that won’t be easily guessed by someone who knows you. That means not using your own name or that of you partner, children, pets, your phone number, street or house name and so on, at least not as-is. One way to create a memorable password out of a familiar name or word is to reverse or jumble the order of the letters. For example, if your cat’s called tibbles, your password might be ‘selbbit’. To make it even stronger add your house number to the beginning or end. When you create a password Windows asks you to enter a ‘hint’ (more about that in Part 3) to jog your memory if you forget it; in this case it could be something like ‘catback’ or ‘pussrev’.


Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at



© R. Maybury 2008, 0705


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