If you haven’t needed to log in as admin for a while it’s easy to forget the password. Photograph: Alamy
I have an HP laptop running Microsoft Windows 8. As recommended by many sources, I created separate user accounts for my wife and myself, and I have not needed to log in as admin for a while. Now I have simply forgotten the password. I’ve tried all of the obvious variations, which followed a pattern I used for my old iMac. I’ve also tried some processes mentioned online, with no success.
It’s easy enough to back up our personal data, so I have considered a factory reset, but I am certain it is going to ask for an admin password. The obvious thing I have not done is pay for some commercial cracking software, but I have no idea which (if any) are reputable and effective. Please suggest a solution, as I would like to upgrade to Windows 10. Stephen
Did you set up the original administrator account using a Microsoft email address as your MSA (Microsoft Account), which is what I strongly recommend? If so, your logon password is the same as your email password, and this is something you might still remember. You might even have written it down somewhere.
If you did use a Hotmail, Live or Outlook.com account, you have a good chance of getting access to your admin account, by resetting your email account password from the Microsoft Account Password Reset page. There are step-by-step instructions at About.com.
Your PC has to be online so that Microsoft can update the admin password on your laptop. However, if you are resetting the password from your standard account, then you will obviously be online.
Reset your PC
Another idea is to back up your data and then reset your PC to factory condition. This should be possible on all Windows 8 PCs that still have their recovery partition intact. It also works with Windows 10 PCs. These don’t have a recovery partition, but they have a special system for rebuilding the operating system when required.
Unfortunately, I don’t think you can reset a Windows 8 PC from a standard user account. You can’t even see “Reset my PC” from a standard account on Windows 10, and fellow journalist Simon Bisson confirmed this was also the case on Windows 8.1. (Thanks to Windows 10, I’m temporarily out of Windows 8 PCs.)
Other methods of resetting a Windows admin password ultimately boil down to changing files on the hard drive before the admin account gets control. The traditional approach was to interrupt the startup sequence, but you can also restart your PC from your Windows recovery DVD or a bootable USB thumb drive. Another alternative is to load Linux from a “Live CD” or USB drive. I suspect this is how most commercial “cracking” programs work.
Advanced Startup Options
Many Ask Jack readers will be familiar with interrupting the boot sequence of a Windows PC by hitting a function key, and then starting Windows in safe mode or changing the boot order in the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) chip. Windows 8 and Windows 10 PCs no longer use the very old and slow BIOS, they use UEFI with an Advanced Startup Options (ASO) screen.
Many PCs have retained the concept, so that pressing,say, the F11 key or Esc during the Windows 8 boot sequence will take you to the ASO screen, where you can start a command prompt window (cmd.exe) aka “DOS box”. Check the user guide for your HP laptop (on your hard drive or online)
to see which function key to press.
Otherwise, you can get to the ASO screen by holding down the shift key while clicking on the power icon and selecting Restart. The long-winded alternative is to use the Charms bar to select Settings, click Change PC settings, and then go through Recovery to the Advanced Startup option, “Restart now”.
When you get to the ASO page, by whatever route, select Troubleshoot, and then Reset your PC. This should return it to factory condition.
Sadly, I’m not sure it will do a reset without an admin password – and I don’t have a machine to try – but it’s worth a go. (I have never been asked for a password when resetting a Windows 8 PC, but I suspect I’ve always done it from admin accounts.)
You can also start your laptop from a Windows DVD or a bootable USB thumb drive and then change the password on the hard drive. Ideally, use the recovery DVD that Windows suggested you create in case you ran into a major problem. (Of course, if you have one of those, you can just reinstall Windows 8 from scratch.)
If not, it doesn’t really matter what you boot from, because you’re not going to install the operating system. It could be almost any Windows DVD or a Live Linux CD.
You “break in” by renaming one of the ease-of-access files. There are half a dozen available, including sethc.exe (Set High Contrast), utilman.exe (Utility Manager), and osk.exe (On-Screen Keyboard). You rename one of these to stop it working: for example, rename osk.exe to osk.exe.old. After that, you rename the Command shell from cmd.exe to osk.exe (or whichever file you chose).
Now, when you start Windows 8, you can run the on-screen keyboard from the utilities icon, but the command shell will load instead. This lets you assign a new password (eg 123) to your admin account, so that you can log in. (Remember to clean up by renaming osk.exe back to cmd.exe and osk.exe.old to osk.exe, and set a new password.)
Lots of YouTube videos show how it’s done. The best one I’ve found is Wesley David’s How to Reset a Windows Password Through a Backdoor. He’s very clear.
If you want to try a Linux-based “rescue CD” then have a look at the Trinity Rescue Kit and Ophcrack v3.6.0 (LiveCD v3.6.0). Both are free.
If you want to try a paid-for cracker, Windows Password Key looks a reasonable bet. I’ve not tried it, but the website is well designed, it has a tutorial. and the FAQ Center articles are sound. Although Windows Password Key is a free download, I assume you end up paying $19.95, though I don’t know how.
I’d just follow Wesley David’s tutorial.
There are ways to avoid getting into this situation in the first place. I use a Microsoft email address with a long password, but I set up a 4-digit PIN so I can log in quickly. I also have two admin accounts, in case one of them goes bad. Finally, I note that Microsoft allows you to create a password reset disk (or USB thumb drive or floppy disk) so that you can reset your password if you forget it. It’s a simple menu item with a wizard to guide you. Windows 8.1 works the same way.
You should also follow Windows’ directions to create recovery media and back-ups so that if your hard drive fails, you can reinstall Windows from scratch and get your stuff back.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com