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Modifying User Accounts

Last updated Feb 25, 2005.

User accounts are added, modified, and deleted using Accounts preferences. To begin managing user accounts, choose Apple > System Preferences > Accounts (see figure).

Figure 30

Figure 30 Any administrator can change the accounts of other users.

All accounts are listed at the left of the Accounts preferences window. Below each user's long name is an indication of the type of user. Administrators are listed as Admin, and normal users are listed as Standard, Managed, or Simplified, depending on the Limitations settings.

Each of the listed user accounts also has its own home folder in /Users and owns any files that are created when someone is logged in as that user. The superuser is not a standard user account and doesn't appear in this list, nor does it have a home directory.

If you're logged in as an administrator, you can immediately begin making changes to the Accounts preferences of any account that's not currently logged in. Otherwise, the lock icon in the lower-left corner of the Accounts preferences window is closed. To make changes, click the lock icon and enter the username and password of any administrator account on the computer. This step doesn't log you in as that administrator, but it does temporarily give you the privileges of that administrator to change preferences.

Specifying Name and Password

As mentioned earlier, you can have as many administrator and normal accounts as you need. To create a new account, click the Add User (plus sign) button. If it's not already visible, the Password pane appears (see figure).

Figure 31

Figure 31 The first step to creating an account is to specify the name and password.

At the very least, you must provide a long name and a short name for each new user, but you should also specify and verify a secure password, (see the section "Creating Good Passwords"). The optional hint appears in the login window if an incorrect password is entered three times in a row. Therefore, the hint should not be the password itself, lest anyone be able to gain access to that account.

Once you've entered the name and password information, just switch to another pane, add another new user, or quit System Preferences. Mac OS X then creates the new account with its own home directory in the /Users folder.

After you've created a new account, you can edit it by clicking among the four buttons along the top of the window.

Specifying the Picture

Click Picture if you want to select a different picture to appear next to your name in the login window (see the following figure). This picture is also used as your Address Book picture and as the default picture in iChat (you can change your picture in those applications without affecting the picture in Accounts preferences). Personally, I find this to be mere window dressing, but if you want to customize your picture, it's easy to do.

Figure 32

Figure 32 Your user picture can be an Apple image or one of your own.

Apple provides an assortment of professionally produced images (the files are stored in /Library/User Pictures). To use any of Apple's images, just click the one you want from the list at right. But if you want to use your own image, click Edit (see figure).

Figure 33

Figure 33 It's easy to use whatever image you want.

Choose from the Recent Pictures pop-up menu at the top of the Images window if you want to revert to one of the 18 most recently used pictures.

If you have an iSight or similar videocamera attached to your Mac, click Take Video Snapshot. The window shows a live image from the camera and snaps a picture after several seconds of beeping. Repeat as necessary until you get a photo that looks better than your driver's license.

If you'd like to use an image file, you can drag-and-drop it into the window or click Choose and navigate to its location on disk. The picture can be in GIF, JPEG, PDF, PNG, TIFF, or any other graphic format that QuickTime understands. Apple recommends using only images that are 64x64 pixels in size, but you can ignore that advice. Within the Images window, drag your picture so that the portion you want to use is in the clear center crop box, and then drag the slider so that the picture is sized to fit.

When you're finished, click Set to return to the Picture pane of Accounts preferences.

Specifying Security Options

By default, each new user has a normal account, but you can change that setting easily. In Accounts preferences, click Security. The checkbox setting at the bottom of the pane determines whether this user has a normal or administrator account (see figure).

Figure 34

Figure 34 The checkbox on the Security pane toggles between a normal and an administrator account.

Select the "Allow user to administer this computer" checkbox if you want to convert a normal user into an administrator. Once this checkbox is selected, the Limitations button is dimmed because the user now has all the privileges associated with being an administrator.

Specifying Limitations

When modifying a normal account, the Limitations pane allows the administrator user to limit what the user can do on the computer (see figure).

Figure 35

Figure 35 The user's account is listed as Standard when No Limits is selected.

By default, new normal users have no limitations other than those imposed by Mac OS X based upon the fact that the user is not an administrator. If you specify limitations for a user in either the Some Limits or Simple Finder pane, but want to temporarily suspend those limitations, click No Limits. Mac OS X remembers the limitation settings of the other panes, but doesn't enforce them.

Click Some Limits if you want precise control over how a user can interact with the computer (see figure).

Figure 36

Figure 36 The user's account is listed as Managed when Some Limits is selected.

The first four checkboxes in the Some Limits pane determine which actions the user can perform:

  • If you don't want to be bothered to supply your administrator password whenever this user wants to change a system preference, select the Open All System Preferences checkbox to allow the user to make changes.
  • You can't select the "Change password" checkbox unless the "Open all System Preferences" checkbox is first selected. Even if you trust a user to change preferences, you may still opt to block the user's ability to change the password, to avoid headaches if the user forgets the new password or changes it to something insecure.
  • Select the "Modify the Dock" checkbox if you want the user to be able to alter the Dock.
  • Select the "Burn CDs and DVDs" checkbox if the computer has an optical drive and you want the user to be able to use it for writing, not just reading. You might want to restrict this capability, for example, if you fear that an employee might use it to steal company secrets or a child might burn porn DVDs.
  • Select the checkbox "This user can only use these applications" if you want to restrict access to certain applications and utilities. You then need to click the disclosure triangles and select the checkboxes for the acceptable applications. You could use this technique to punish a teenager, for example, by rescinding the ability to listen to music in iTunes.

Click Simple Finder to impose the most draconian of limitations upon a user (see figure).

Figure 37

Figure 37 The user's account is listed as Simplified when Simple Finder is selected.

Simple Finder provides a simplified view of the desktop and is intended for anyone who may be challenged by the complexity of the traditional Finder (see the following figure). The unmodifiable Dock in Simple Finder contain only three icons: My Applications, Documents, and Shared. Users can't create new folders, but they can open any folders that appear in the Documents and Shared folders.

If the user clicks the My Applications folder in the Dock, a window appears showing aliases for only those applications that you have specifically allowed. Instead of having to double-click an icon to launch a program, only a single click is required. The numbered buttons along the bottom of the window allow you to see additional items.

Figure 38

Figure 38 The Simple Finder window appears in Icon view only.

Simple Finder has very few menus and commands in the menu bar. If you choose File > Run Full Finder, you must enter an administrator username and password to temporarily restore the Finder menus and commands. Even so, some limitations remain (such as the inability to access System Preferences).

Specifying Startup Items

If you're modifying your own account, by clicking Startup Items you can specify which items to open automatically when you log in (see figure).

Figure 39

Figure 39 Anything in the Startup Items pane opens whenever you log in.

To add an item to the Startup Items pane, click the Add icon in the lower-left corner of the window and choose the item you want (you can Shift-click or Command-click to select multiple items at once). The Startup Items feature is obviously a timesaver if you always use the same documents or applications and want them to open immediately when you log into your account. But what you may not realize is that Startup Items can also open folders and servers. After mounting a server, just drag its icon into the Startup Items list (this shortcut works for other items, too). If you saved your username and password to the keychain in the Options window when connecting to the server, it will mount in the future without bothering you for this information again.

The checkboxes in the Startup Items pane cause the item to open in the background. This may be useful if you're opening a lot of items and don't want the screen cluttered with so many windows.

Once items are in the list, you can drag them to specify the order in which they open, or select an item and click the Minus icon to remove the item from the list permanently.

Finally, you can temporarily prevent all of the startup items from opening. After you enter your username and password in the login window, hold down the Shift key until the Finder appears.

Setting Login Options

If you're an administrator user, you can configure login options for the computer. In Accounts preferences, click the Login Options button (see figure).

Figure 40

Figure 40 An administrator can change the login options.

If you have only a few accounts on this computer, you may want to display the list of all users in the login window. This option is somewhat insecure in that it gives potential hackers half the information they need (a valid username) to break into your computer. If security is a concern, or you have more accounts than the list can hold in the login window, choose to display only the name and password fields. This technique forces users to enter a valid username and password to log in.

If there's only one account on your computer and your Mac is in a secure location, you may soon tire of having to log in manually. If that's the case, select the "Automatically log in as" checkbox in the Accounts preferences window and choose a user from the corresponding pop-up menu. You will then be prompted for the password (if any) for that account. The next time the computer boots, Mac OS X automatically logs into that account.

You can also hide the Sleep, Restart, and Shut Down buttons that normally appear at the bottom of the login window. This feature is an attempt to keep other users from restarting in an insecure mode, but they can always circumvent this design by using the restart or power buttons on the computer itself.

Finally, you can enable fast user switching in the Login Options pane. This feature lets multiple users share a computer without quitting applications and logging out. See the section "Switching Between Users" for details.