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Profiles: How to set up one PC for many users, Part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
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Profiles: How to set up one PC for many users, Part 1


Technofile for March 14, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

My friend John has the messiest computer desktop I have ever seen. He has dozens of icons and folders scattered all over it. His Start Menu defines the word "clutter."

Yet he doesn't care. Watch him in action, and you might be amazed. In a minute or so, John's desktop is clean and tidy, and his Start Menu is lean and neat. Any time he wants to, he can return to the mess -- he likes the "anything goes" approach for some of the projects he works on -- and he can just as quickly get back to the safe haven of orderliness.

What's his secret? John doesn't have a custom PC, nor does he use any optional utility programs. He's got a stock Windows computer.

John's two teenagers use the same PC. His son has a screen saver that would make a sailor blush, but it never shows up when John is at the keyboard. His daughter's chat program runs all the time when she's on the computer, yet no one else in the family ever has to deal with it. Everybody has e-mail, and all the mail is separate -- on one PC, using only one e-mail program.

Is this a miracle? Am I simply teasing you about something that will happen a few years down the road?

Not at all. John's PC takes advantage of one of the hidden features of Windows called Profiles. By turning on the "Profiles" options in the Control Panel, users of Windows 95 and 98 PCs can turn their single-user PCs into multi-user PCs. All users then have their own desktops, backgrounds, wallpaper, screen savers, Start Menus, mail accounts, Web browser Favorites, auto-running programs and much more. A "multi-user" PC can simply be a PC with only one user who has two or more Profiles or it can be a PC used by dozens of different people.

Profiles are sometimes called User Profiles. (They're the same thing.) In Windows 95, Profiles are turned on or off through the Passwords applet of the Control Panel. In Windows 98, they're handled through the Users applet of the Control Panel. Profiles make use of usernames and passwords.

Here's how it works:

    1. As soon as the computer boots up, Windows sticks a form on the screen. The form asks you to type your username and password.
    2. If you type a username and password that Windows already recognizes (because you've logged on before), Windows shuffles some things around so that you get all your own settings.
    3. If you type a username and password that Windows does not recognize, it asks if you want to create a new logon identity. It then shuffles things around -- we'll get back to this part -- to make sure whatever you do as a new user is saved, or it fires up the default Windows setup.

Profiles work very well and have only a few drawbacks. Let's get the drawbacks out of the way first.

First, a PC that uses Profiles won't boot itself up. It stops after a reboot and waits for someone to type a name and password. If you used a computer as a network server, to give just one example, Your network would never come back up. (Clever users already know that there are ways to send a username and password to Windows automatically at each bootup. But this defeats Profiles by forcing Windows to use a specific logon, and so it isn't an option in this case.)

Second, a PC that uses Profiles needs extra drive space. If your PC is already low on drive capacity, don't consider Profiles. Extra space is needed because users have their own storage areas (for their own desktops, menus and so on). A PC used by only two or three users might not need much extra space -- a few hundred megabytes at most, probably. But a PC that served 20 or 30 students over the course of a year almost certainly would need an extra gigabyte of storage space in the main hard drive. (Drives are cheap, so don't let this limitation stop you if you're considering Profiles.)

Third, Profiles seem to provide security and privacy, but they actually do not. You do get a measure of safety. Someone logging on with another Profile won't be likely to mess up your desktop or menus accidentally. But any clever 14-year-old who uses the PC will be able to see the files (and the menus, Favorites and temporary download files) of all other users. Theses items won't be hanging out there in plain view -- but that merely means you'll have a devil of a time locating them. But your kids (or your neighbor's kids) won't have any problem finding ALL the files stored in other profiles, so keep that in mind if you're hoping that Profiles will give you genuine privacy. They won't.

On the plus side, Profiles have a lot to recommend them. In many ways, they turn a single PC into multiple PCs. If you can't afford a separate PC for the kids and don't want them to mess up your desktop and other settings, you're a candidate for Profiles. You'll also have to use Profiles if you want to have separate e-mail accounts using Outlook Express, the standard e-mail software for many modern PCs. Outlook Express cannot put different users' mail into separate folders otherwise. (Nor can Outlook 98. These two programs with similar names are the only mail programs I recommend.) Keep in mind that your Internet provider has to support multiple mailboxes using a single master account. Many of them do.

(Next: How to set up Profiles, and what they can do for you.)


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