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Macintosh Reference Guide

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User Types Explained

Last updated Feb 25, 2005.

Regardless of the tasks you perform on your computer, as far as Mac OS X is concerned there are only three types of user accounts: superuser, administrator, and normal. Your user type determines your level of privileges for changing how the Mac operates:

  • The superuser (also called the root user) has read and write access to all settings and files on the system, including hidden system files that a regular administrator account cannot modify.
  • An administrator user has basic use of the tools used to configure and customize Mac OS X. An administrator can also install applications and resources that can be used by all users on the system.
  • Normal users are limited to making configuration changes that affect only their own accounts; they cannot change system-wide preferences.

For any given Mac OS X computer, there is only one superuser, but this is not really a human user with a separate home directory. Think of the superuser as Mac OS X's own hidden account that's necessary for the proper operation of the computer. I'll discuss the superuser account in other sections of this Guide as necessary, but under ordinary circumstances you never need to know or care about the superuser account.

A notch down from the all-powerful superuser is an administrator account. There must be at least one administrator for each Mac OS X computer. By default, the first account set up during the installation of Mac OS X is an administrator. If you're the only user of the computer, you have sole administrative responsibility. However, you can share that responsibility with other users. There can be as many administrator accounts as you like, but it's usually a good idea to limit administrator accounts to trustworthy users with solid technical backgrounds.

The third type of account is for normal users. There can be as many normal users on a computer as you need. Each normal user has his or her own home directory and can create documents as needed, but can't meddle with the documents of other users or change system-wide settings. In a home environment, all family members who use the computer should have their own accounts. Likewise, in a small office, each employee who needs to access the computer should have his or her own account.