Windows Vista: User Account Control (UAC) levels cut down on pop ups

With each Windows Vista revision, Microsoft honed UAC to keep it on target and now UAC only monitors critical operations and is very user friendly.

As you probably know by now, Windows Vista's User Account Control (UAC) is designed to help prevent unauthorized or malicious changes from being made to your computer. In order to protect the integrity of your system, UAC displays a dialog box that asks for either permission or an administrator password, depending on your user account privileges, before continuing with the operation.

All through the Windows Vista beta testing phase, testers reported that there were way too many UAC pop up messages and that they occurred while performing the most mundane tasks. As such, people have been concerned that UAC would be so annoying that most users would find ways to turn it off and thus ignore a very crucial safety feature in the new operating system.

Therefore, with each revision, Microsoft honed UAC to keep it on target and now UAC only monitors critical operations and is very user friendly. While there are various situations that can cause a UAC, there are four levels to the system that help you identify the seriousness of the situation.

In this edition of the Windows Vista Report, I'll take a look at the various UAC levels and examine the messages that you'll encounter as you use Windows Vista. As I do, I'll show you the different dialog boxes you'll see depending on whether you are logged on as a Standard User or as an Administrator when a UAC event occurs.

Administrator vs. Standard User

Before we jump into the UAC portion of this article, let's take a few moments to look at the Standard User and Administrator accounts. When you first install Windows Vista in a workgroup or standalone configuration, Setup will create an Administrator account that you can use to set up your system. Any other accounts that you create in the User Accounts tool will by default be Standard User accounts.

In fact, Microsoft recommends that after you've finished installing Windows Vista, you create a Standard User account for yourself and use that rather than the Administrator account for your everyday computing. With a Standard User account you can perform all the things that you normally do such as run your applications and games as well as surf the Internet and check your e-mail.

If you do need to perform an operation that requires Administrator privileges, such as installing a program or changing a configuration setting, you won't need to switch to the Administrator account as a UAC will pop up when you attempt to perform the operation and prompt you for the Administrator account's password.

It's important to realize that UAC applies to both Standard User and Administrator accounts so you won't be able to avoid them simply by running your system from an Administrator account. With this in mind, let's take a look at the various UAC dialog boxes that you'll encounter in Windows Vista.

Windows needs permission

When you attempt to run a native program or utility that will change the way the operating system works or will affect other user accounts on the system, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box titled Windows needs your permission to continue and will be prompted to confirm the operation. Microsoft advises you to check the name of the action listed in the dialog box to ensure that it's the function or program you want to run.

If you're logged on to the system with an Administrator account, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box like the one shown in Figure A. As you can see, to move to the next step, all you need to do is click Continue. When you do, the operation will commence without any further interruption.

Figure A

When you attempt to launch a native operation from an Administrator account, you'll see this UAC dialog box.

If you're logged on to the system with a Standard User account, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box like the one shown in Figure B. As you can see, this UAC supplies the Administrator account username and prompts you to supply the Administrator account's password. Once you type the correct password and click OK, the operation will begin without any other intervention from you.

Figure B

When you attempt to launch a native operation from an Standard User account, you'll see this UAC dialog box.

At this point, I want to point out that the shield icon and the color of the banner on which it sits are important visual cues in differentiating the types of UAC events and messages. As you can see the Windows needs your permission to continue User Account Control dialog box displays a four-color shield on a blue-green banner.

A program needs permission

When you attempt to run a third-party program that has a valid digital signature indicating its name and its publisher, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box titled A program needs your permission to continue and will be prompted to confirm the operation. Microsoft advises you to check the name listed in the dialog box to ensure that it's the program that you intended to run.

If you're logged on to the system with an Administrator account, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box like the one shown in Figure C. As you can see, to continue, all you need to do is click Continue and the operation will begin.

Figure C

When you attempt to launch a third party program with a valid digital signature from an Administrator account, you'll see this UAC dialog box.

If you're logged on to the system with a Standard User account, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box like the one shown in Figure D. As you can see, this UAC supplies the Administrator account username and prompts you to supply the Administrator account's password. Once you type the correct password and click OK, the operation will begin.

Figure D

When you attempt to launch a third party program with a valid digital signature from an Standard User account, you'll see this UAC dialog box.

Notice that the A program needs your permission to continue User Account Control dialog box displays a yellow shield containing an exclamation point and that the shield sits on a grey banner.

An unidentified program wants access

When you attempt to run a third-party program that does not have a digital signature indicating its name and its publisher, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box titled An unidentified  program wants access to your computer and will be prompted to confirm the operation. Microsoft advises you to remember that this doesn't necessarily indicate a dangerous situation, as many older, legitimate programs lack digital signatures. However, when you encounter this UAC you should be very careful to check the name listed in the dialog box to ensure that it's a program that you trust and intended to run.

If you're logged on to the system with an Administrator account, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box like the one shown in Figure E. As you can see, to continue, you need to click Allow to indicate that you trust the program and intended to run it. When you do, the operation will begin.

Figure E

When you attempt to launch a third-party program that doesn't have a digital signature from an Administrator account, you'll see this UAC dialog box.

If you're logged on to the system with a Standard User account, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box like the one shown in Figure F. As you can see, this UAC supplies the Administrator account username and prompts you to supply the Administrator account's password. Once you type the correct password and click OK, the operation will begin.

Figure F

When you attempt to launch a third-party program that doesn't have a digital signature from an Standard User account, you'll see this UAC dialog box.

Notice that the An unidentified  program wants access to your computer User Account Control dialog box displays a yellow shield containing an exclamation point and that the shield sits on a yellow banner. As you can see, this UAC dialog box will really grab your attention.

A program has been blocked

If you attempt to run any program that has been specifically blocked by someone with an Administrator account, you'll see a User Account Control dialog box titled This program has been blocked like the one shown in Figure G, and the operation will be immediately halted. When you click OK, the User Account Control dialog box will simply disappear and nothing will occur.

Figure G

When you attempt to launch a program that has been blocked, you'll see this UAC dialog box.

Notice that the This program has been blocked User Account Control dialog box displays a red shield containing an X and that the shield sits on a red banner.

Conclusion

The UAC system is designed to help prevent unauthorized or malicious changes from being made to your computer. There are several levels of events that can trigger a UAC and each one has a different look and feel depending on the type of event and the type of user account in which it occurs. If you have comments or information to share about Windows Vista's UAC, please take a moment to drop by the Discussion area and let us hear.