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Profiles: How to set up one PC for many users, Part 2
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 2


Technofile for March 21, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

Last week I explained how Windows can use Profiles to give every user of a single PC an individual desktop and Start Menu -- and individual settings for such things as e-mail and Favorites. This week I'll tell you how they work and how to set them up.

Technically, Profiles work in a simple way. Each user of the PC gets a kind of "home directory," a folder named for the user, where items unique to that user are stored. Among the items stored there are the user's Start Menu, the user's own Favorites and the Windows desktop belonging to that user. Windows changes its pointers to the Start Menu and the other items so that the normal Start Menu, desktop and Favorites aren't used.

Programs that know how to deal with Profiles -- that know how to keep user information separate, in other words -- usually don't put their files in this special "home directory." Instead, they enter their information in the Registry, a huge database of information about the PC and how it's used that Windows keeps up-to-date many times a second. Normally, Windows builds the Registry at each bootup from two hidden files -- SYSTEM.DAT, a big file containing information about the PC, and USER.DAT, a smaller file containing information about the user. (It would hold details about the user's e-mail accounts, including passwords and other sensitive data, among many other things.) But when the PC has Profiles turned on, Windows uses a special replacement for USER.DAT named for the user currently logged on. It might be called JOHN.DAT, for example.

Here's how that would work:

John's wife, Mary, has been using the computer under the "Mary" profile. She logs off and heads to work at the mill. John logs on under the "John" profile. (Users can log on and off without shutting down the PC, using the "Log off" option at the bottom of the Start Menu.) When Windows sees John's username and password, it takes the first part of the Registry -- SYSTEM.DAT, the part shared by all users -- and combines it with JOHN.DAT (instead of USER.DAT) to create a complete Registry. Windows also makes sure that John gets the right Start Menu, Favorites and desktop. (The normal ones are put in limbo.) As far as the main "brain" of Windows is concerned, John is the only user of that PC.

When John's finished, he logs off. Later, he might log on again with his other username and password -- the one that has the messy desktop -- or he might log on without ANY username or password. (I'll explain this in a minute.) Any changes he made to his "John" desktop won't show up anywhere else, nor will he notice anything Mary added to or deleted from her desktop. Likewise, changes either of them made to their own Start Menu or Favorites won't have any effect on the other's Start Menu or Favorites.

There's a catch to all this. You need to understand it if you are going to use Profiles.

Programs you install under your logon usually aren't available to anyone else. In many cases, a program installed under one logon will not show up in the menus of other users and will need to be installed again by each one of them -- unless, of course, they don't want to use that program. If users decide to install the same program, they MUST do two things:

    1. Install it to the same location (the same directory).
    2. Install it as soon as possible after the first user installed the program. (If many users want to have the software available, let one person handle everything. This person would log on as each user in turn, install the software and log off, repeating that as many times as needed.)

This sounds like a lot of trouble -- and it IS a lot of trouble in most cases -- but there's a way to avoid repeated installations if you plan things properly. Here's the secret: Windows automatically lets all users share the software that's already installed on the PC before Profiles are turned on. So start from scratch and install Windows onto the PC that you'll use. Leave Profiles turned off at first. Install all the software that will be used in common EXCEPT the e-mail software. (Uninstall the e-mail program if necessary.)

When you're finished installing the common software, double check the main user interface -- the way the Start Menu works, the look and layout of the desktop, and so on -- because whatever you have set up will be the default. Users who don't want to log on with a username and password will get the default settings, and all users who have their own logons will get these defaults as their own starting points. (In other words, once you have turned Profiles on, everyone who logs on will start out with the same Start Menu and desktop. They can customize their versions any way they want, of course, but you should make sure everyone is satisfied with the common setup before turning Profiles on.)


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