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Are multiple administrator accounts on a single machine a bad thing?

When we got our home computer years ago, each member of the family got their
own account for their XP login screen. I thought it would be simplest if each
account had full permission so all of our accounts are administrator accounts.
Now, years later, I’m wondering if there weren’t some unintended consequences
to this choice. It seems that different accounts now behave differently;
especially with the web. For example, I’m moderately computer literate so I
install the updates and patches that are occasionally recommended by the
various programs, like Adobe. My wife doesn’t do any of that stuff and just
ignores the update requests. My assumption was that by installing an update
when I login as me, all of our accounts would be getting updated. But is that
true when all accounts are administrators? Does an update installed by one
administrator affect the other accounts? I guess the larger question is whether
or not a home PC should be set up with multiple administrators or should there
be just one? This isn’t about keeping any information secret from other people,
just about ongoing system maintenance.

In this excerpt from Answercast #88 I look at the problems involved in
keeping software updated on a multi-user PC setup.

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Multiple administrator accounts

Well, you know I have mixed feelings on this.

To address the update problem specifically: unfortunately, that’s an application specific characteristic. Some applications (most notably Windows itself) when you update them, regardless of who performs the update, they’re updating your system. They’re updating the system for everybody – no matter who’s using the system.

Other software packages may very well be updating only the current user – whoever that current user might be. It doesn’t matter whether “administrator” comes into play or not. You might need the administrator permissions to perform some of these updates; it’s hard to say, but the fact is some applications may only be updating for the user that is performing the update.

So if you perform an update of some software, the other three accounts may not get those updates… or something in-between. It gets confusing pretty quick.

Multiple accounts get confusing

That’s actually one of the reasons that every time I ventured into this myself (setting up multiple user accounts on a Windows machine) I end up regretting it; I just do. It’s not that they are all administrator accounts; again, I don’t see that as being a big issue. It’s just that things get too confusing too quickly – specifically, exactly the kinds of things that you’re dealing with.

I end up having a single user account for use on any of my PCs.

Sharing a PC

Now, in our case, we actually don’t share PCs very often. But if we were to share PCs then what I would do is to make sure that, at the application level, that information can somehow be kept separate rather than at the Windows level.

It’s supposed to work properly this way; it really is. In an ideal world, what you assumed at the beginning should in fact work. If you set up a machine and you update the machine, you update the software on the machine, that should update for everybody. But unfortunately; it just doesn’t appear to be that way across the board.

So, I have a hard time recommending multi-user PCs these days – still (even though it should work and work properly) for pretty much the case that you’ve outlined here.

Keeping up to date

So I really don’t have a good answer for you as to exactly what should happen here or how you should move forward. It would make sense for you to run through the other accounts that you have on those machines and perform any outstanding updates. Just get everybody up to the same level.

Ultimately, it kind of means that yea, every time that you find that there’s an update visible on your account, you might want to go take a look at the other accounts to see if the updates are available there as well.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

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6 comments on “Are multiple administrator accounts on a single machine a bad thing?”

  1. @John G
    If you go into User Accounts in the Control Panel, you can go into each of these accounts and delete them. This procedure is a little different for different versions of Windows.

    Reply
  2. Adding onto this question about whether to have multiple admin accounts on Windows, can I delete “Administrator” and keep my single User ID as the sold admin account? Or are there times when Windows or other programs look specifically for the “Administrator” user?

    I believe Administrator is required (it’s present but hidden in some versions of Windows). I’d give it an exceptionally strong password (don’t forget it) and then leave it be.

    Leo
    19-Jan-2013

    Reply
  3. I set up at least two accounts for a couple of reasons. At work, I set up the administrator account with a password known only to me, the owner, and God. So the user of the computer (not an administrative account) can’t change my password, but I can always change theirs. Helpful at times when employees are mad. Not perfect, but helpful. Even on those computers where the users must be an administrator because of 3rd party software, most users don’t know how to change someone else’s password.

    For my own personal computer, the first username is THE administrator account. Then, I set up another account that I use all the time. So if something ever becomes corrupted in that account, I have the original to go to and take care of the problem. This doesn’t happen as frequently as it used to, but just a safety/insurance policy to help with my paranoid feelings:-)

    Reply

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