You’re not the administrator. Not really.
Oh, sure, you may think you’re the administrator. Windows may have even lead you to believe you’re the administrator.
However, a security feature in Windows, on by default, means you’re not the administrator.
But you can be.
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Administrator … but not
UAC, or User Account Control, is an important security feature. By default, your login account — even if it’s an “administrator” account — doesn’t actually run with administrative privileges.
Why? Because when you actually run with administrative privileges, any programs you run also have full administrative privileges.
Think of it as “administrator-capable”
The difference between having what you might consider a “normal” account and what I’ll refer to as an “administrator-capable” account is what happens when you do something that requires administrative access.
If your account is administrator-capable, you’ll get the familiar “UAC” prompt, to which you need only respond Yes or No.
Accounts that are not administrator-capable have to enter the administrator password to prove the user is authorized to do something requiring administrative privileges.
That’s really the only difference: whether or not you’re asked for a password when the UAC prompt appears. In most other respects, all accounts (other than the hidden account actually called “Administrator”1), are effectively limited user accounts (LUA).
The account you create when you set up your system is, by default, administrator-capable.
Programs that need administrative access
Normally, when a program needs administrative access to perform some function, there are two things Windows can do: it can deny the request, or it can ask you for permission (via UAC). Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to ask, which means that the request is denied and the program fails to perform whatever task it was attempting.
The solution is to run the program as administrator. Because your account is administrator-capable, you can run programs with full administrative privileges. Many programs have this option; I’ll use Windows Command Prompt as an example to show you how to run a program with full administrative privileges.
Locate the Windows Command Prompt icon in the Windows Start Menu, and right-click on it. If present in the resulting sub-menu, click on More. You should now see a “Run as administrator” option.
Click on that and you’ll get the UAC prompt, confirming you want to run the program “as” administrator.
If there’s no “Run as administrator”
Not all programs have a “Run as administrator” option on their Start Menu or other shortcuts. You can still attempt to run a program as administrator using Task Manager.
Run Task Manager (right-click on the clock and click on Task Manager). Then click on the File menu, Run new task item. You’ll be prompted to enter a task to run, along with a checkbox that lets you run it as administrator.
You need to know the name of the program’s file (calc, in the example above), or use the Browse… button to locate the program.
Note: Windows File Explorer is a special beast. It’s always running, as it provides the Windows Taskbar and Start menu. As a result, attempting to run it again, with or without administrative privileges, will open a new Explorer window, but may not actually start a new copy, and may not cause that new copy to run as administrator.
You should think twice before running programs as administrator. There should always be a clear reason to do so.
If you run your mail, browser, word processing program, or instant messaging client as administrator, those programs will be able to do anything. That includes running malware, such as emailed attachments, that they “invite” onto your system. Essentially, you’ll have completely subverted the security measures that UAC puts into place.
In addition, Windows treats file ownership and security differently depending on each user’s permissions and whether you have full administrative privileges. In other words, files you create while running a program with full administrative privileges might not be accessible later when you run normally, without those privileges.
In short, UAC security is there for an important reason, and helps keep your machine safe from many forms of malware and exploits. Use “Run as administrator” with caution, and only when you’re sure you need it. Close the program as soon as you no longer need those extra capabilities.