Multi-PC single user experience

In a one PC home it’s easy to keep a consistent user experience. Simply set up the welcome screen and Fast User Switching with multiple user accounts in windows XP and all your apps files and settings are there. But as soon as you have two PC’s this experience breaks down. My file that I need on one PC are saved on the other. A program I installed on one computer isn’t installed on the other. There is no way to mirror all your settings and keep the exact user experience across multiple users and multiple PC.

Until Now. First a warning… This is a hack, not a bad naughty type of hack but a hack in the sense that it’s not ideal but it works well enough some of the time that some people may find it useful.

I call it a virtual user account and it allows your user experience to be identical regardless of what computer you walk up to. Here’s how it works, the process requires XP Pro on each PC and an experienced XP user to set it up.

  1. On each computer set up a user account for each user that will need access.
  2. On each computer enable remote desktop
  3. For each person designate the computer that will be their primary PC where files should be stored.
  4. For each user account that is not the primary account we will create a remote desktop connection file to their primary PC. Then use regedit to set the remote desktop application as a replacement for the explorer.exe shell. The right key is:
    HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftWindows NTCurrentVersionWinlogonYou will want to create a key called shell with a value set to something like:
    %SystemRoot%System32mstsc.exe “c:savedRemoteDesktopFile.rdp”
    The remote desktop application will connect to the primary PC and automatically log in the user.
  5. If you screw up and don’t have a shell remember you can use CTRL+Shift+Esc to bring up the task manager and get you out of trouble.

The result is almost seamless. As a normal user from the welcome screen I just see multiple accounts like normal. When I select an account I get logged in. In some cases the login happens through terminal services and in other cases it happens on the local PC.

This works great for the old desktop that you don’t use all that often or for someone who hops between many computers and wants a unified user experience.

Known issues

  • XP may drag a little on the welcome login screen. I believe it’s waiting for the application to load before showing the application but I’m not sure.
  • If the primary user of a computer is connected remotely and someone else walks tries to the computer and tries to use it it’ll bump the remote person off.
  • I haven’t found a way to hide the remote desktop minimize bar. It hides after a second or two but I’d like it completely gone.

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One response to “Multi-PC single user experience”

  1. If the primary user of a computer is connected remotely and someone else walks tries to the computer and tries to use it it’ll bump the remote person off.” Although probably not part of the Microsoft License agreement, there is a way to make a Windows XP Pro run more than one session at a time. Details are published here:

    http://sig9.com/articles/concurrent-remote-desktop and here:

    http://www.golod.com/2005/10/enabling-multiple-remote-desktop-sessions-in-windows-xp-professional-and-media-center-edition-2005/

    I’ve tried this at home and it worked great.

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