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Who is the Administrator, What Does That Title Mean, and How Do I Gain That Type of Control Over My PC?

Tom Lorch isn't sure if Windows sees him as the administrator, or exactly what that means.

Tom Lorch isn't sure if Windows sees him as the administrator, or exactly what that means.

Every Windows installation has one or more user accounts--you have to log onto one when you boot your PC. At least one of those accounts must have administrator privileges. Only an administrator can install software, change some of the more dangerous settings, and remove other users' logon passwords.

If you are the sole owner of a home PC, you should have access to the administrator account, whether or not that's the account you work in on a regular basis. There are exceptions. For instance, a child should never have administrator privileges.

Things don't work that way in the workplace--and shouldn't. The company owns the PC, and therefore gets to say who has administrator rights. Usually it’s the IS department.

Many experts recommend that, even if you're the only person using that computer, you keep two accounts--a standard one for day-to-day work, and an administrator account for updates, program installations, and other maintenance. I'm not convinced that this precaution really helps, and I don't follow it, myself.

How do you find out if your account, or somebody else's, has administrator privileges? In Vista and Windows 7, click the Start button, type user, and click User Accounts. Near the upper-right corner of the resulting window, you'll see the icon and name of the account you're currently logged onto. Under your name, it will say either Administrator or Standard user. To see other accounts, click Manage another account (you won't be able to do this unless you're an administrator).

If you're using XP, click Start, then Run, type nusrmgr.cpl, and press ENTER. All of the accounts will be listed at the bottom of the resulting window, along with their type. In XP, a standard account is called a limited one.

But what if you don't have administrator privileges, you should have them, and those privileges belong to someone who is no longer a part of your life? Unfortunately, only someone who already has administrator privileges can give them to someone else. You can try logging onto the administrator account, but it probably requires a password.

Or does it? See Gain Administrator Access Without a Password for some ways around this.

Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema. Email your tech questions to him at answer@pcworld.com, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum. Follow Lincoln on Twitter, or subscribe to the Answer Line newsletter, e-mailed weekly.

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