Which To Use – The Administrator Account or a Guest Account?

It is a commonly recommended idea that no one should use their computer on their administrator account. Although many people still do, this is a popular suggestion for good reason.


Using your computer on a non-administrator level account can help keep you safe from malware infections and potentially keep you from changing important settings or deleting important files. Also if you got hacked on your guest account, the hackers wouldn’t have access to your important system files to do any real damage.

Note the key word: helps.

Like most everything in life, in theory this would be a wonderful solution to some of the most frightening technological threats. In theory, this would protect you not only from ill-intentioned people but also save you from yourself.

Everything is great, in theory.

In reality, guest-level user accounts (minimal access to important files and settings) and even power-user level accounts (moderate access permissions) can cause problems and frustrations for the average user. How? In the same way a seat belt would not be helpful if your car was sinking into a lake.

Having limited access to important files, folders, and settings CAN potentially save you from yourself by stopping you from changing something you shouldn’t.

But the computer doesn’t know when you know what you are doing and mean to do it versus when you think you are doing something safe but really shouldn’t.

The way Windows handles things from a non-administrator account is weird at times. By the way, a non-administrator account means any account without administrator-level/full access permissions to all files, folders, and settings. It doesn’t have to be the default “Administrator” account.

Sometimes using “Run As” is enough. When you download a program to install, you can right-click the program’s icon and choose “Run As…” to install the software program from an administrator level account (with the username and password). But I have even seen some software act difficult under those conditions. Furthermore, even if you install software as an administrator, that doesn’t mean it will then run fine under a non-administrator account.

I personally don’t automatically recommend everyone to use their computer under a guest account. I also don’t automatically advise everyone to get antivirus software. I am not some sort of technology hippie out to “stick it to the MAN” – but I believe a lot of general tech information passed on to the public uses too many scare tactics.

Using it as a general guideline to gain knowledge is good. Using it as life or death fact isn’t.

As with most situations, what works for one guy won’t necessarily work for the next. All software programs do not require the same access. Now that I think about it, explaining how software works would be a wonderful next-topic.

If you bought your computer from a big-box store, you likely went through a basic setup which involved making – or not making – an administrator password. I think most people tend to leave that blank and turn off the requirement to log on at all. (The alternative would be you turn on your computer, give it a couple minutes to boot up, and once it is up you can instantly use it.)

If you want to add a guest-level account that is fine and you can add one anytime.

But before you start solely using a guest-level account, ask yourself:

  • How many people will use this computer?
  • What sorts of things will I be using this computer for?
  • How many programs will I want to install?
  • Am I doing this to increase my safety against external threats (viruses, spyware, hackers) or to prevent myself from making a silly mistake?

If multiple people will use your computer, by all means – make a guest account (or multiple if many people will regularly use it). Make everyone else use the guest-level accounts to make less of a headache for you. (Depending how strict the account permissions are, they may be unable to install software or make changes to your settings, allowing you to monitor what happens on your computer.)

If you are the only one using your computer, what do you plan to or normally use it for? If you are only using your computer for creating Word documents, you really don’t need antivirus software and in the same way, you really wouldn’t need to use a guest account either. However, if you are the type to frequent questionable websites or download lots of software from untrustworthy websites or torrents, it couldn’t hurt to go under a guest account to help minimize any potential damage.

Maybe you are the only one using it and you mostly just play Mahjong and check your email, maybe browsing a few websites here and there (hi Mom!). At this point, it doesn’t even matter much what account you use, but what do you plan to do in the future? Do you plan to install more games? Or start a new hobby with some new software you bought? Plan to work from home with the company software?

If there is a high chance you will be installing a lot of software, or even just running some critical programs (such as ones used for work, for example) you may want to just be careful and stay under an administrator account. As I mentioned before, with the way that some programs work you may be able to install them easily using “Run As…” but that doesn’t mean you will be able to use the software as easily while under a limited-access account. For some software it won’t make much difference either way. Other software could be a problem.

OK, so you are the only person using your computer, for relatively plain reasons (checking email, playing Solitaire, etc), and don’t need to install software anytime too soon. But you really would just feel safer and more secure if you were under an account where you felt like you couldn’t accidentally make a silly mistake that might harm your computer in some way. Why not, right?

Go ahead if it makes you feel better, but don’t get lulled into believing that this will keep you completely safe. There are many malware programs that can override restricted access permissions. And even on your own, you can change some settings or delete some files that – even if they aren’t critical – can still change things about your computer that can be a headache to restore.

As with antivirus software, the bottom line isn’t to rely solely on the software. You shouldn’t drive 100mph down a seemingly empty highway because someone could pull out in front of you when you don’t expect it. In the same way, you can’t just use restricted permissions, a firewall, or antivirus software and believe you are safe to do anything with your computer. Something could sneak in when you least expect it.

Moral of the story? Don’t rely on computer-level security measures to take the place of good judgment.

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4 Responses to Which To Use – The Administrator Account or a Guest Account?

  1. G.L. Kent says:

    thank you for the info. i had already decided to get rid of the admin’r account and use only my personal pc account. however, when i log on using the icon for my personal acct, only 2 of the many program & file icons i had show up on my home screen, which now has a black background. when i log in using the adm’r acct, i get my old background and the many icons i had. how do i get rid of the adm’r account and get back control and my old screen using my personal acct? (one time this week, i couldn’t even access a MS Word doc using my personal account; after much fiddling around, i was able to open it and work on it.)

    Glenda Kent Nashville, Tennessee

    Date: Fri, 17 Aug 2012 11:47:38 +0000 To: calif.vet@hotmail.com

    • Heather says:

      Hi Glenda! Thanks for your comment. I hope I wasn’t unclear, I do not recommend that anyone try to delete their administrator account. This post was to address the frequent recommendation that people use their computers under a restricted-access account instead of the primary administrator account.

      From what you described, it sounds to me like you had originally been using your primary administrator account (thus all the icons and documents being linked to that one). A new account would be the very basic default settings that apply to “all users”, which would explain why you would not have your preferred background or your icons.

      If that is the case, you can log in as the administrator and copy all your personal documents to your “My Documents” folder (go to My Computer > C: > Documents and Settings > YourUserName > My Documents). You can also link to programs from your personal account or you should even be able to copy all the accounts on your desktop and paste them to your user account the same way (except obviously you would choose “Desktop” instead of “My Documents” to paste to).

      Let me know if that helps! If not, let me know how accurate (or inaccurate, for that matter) I am and we can work on this further!

      Heather

  2. Mike says:

    The Administrator account is dangerous … I do not know how many friends and relatives computers, I had to restore simply because they are running their Windows machines wide open and with Administrator rights … If t´s not viruses so it is trojans or other crap that causes the computer to collapse.
      Do not know if it has improved since Windows 8, but Windows Vista / 7 has been a disaster.

    I think the world would have been a better place if you have tighter restrictions for inexperienced computer users 🙂

    • Heather says:

      Agreed! Even under a basic user account, it sometimes still has too many permissions to inexperienced users. The problem is that it also restricts too much so inexperienced users come into weird problems that they don’t know how to resolve simply due to a permissions issue.

      It’s a shame that the basic operating systems (non-professional versions) do not give you so many customizations as the pro versions.

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