Networking in Windows 7 builds upon the drastic remodeling that occurred in Windows Vista. However, although some of the basic networking features in Windows 7 are similar to those in Windows Vista, many networking features have been improved in Microsoft's latest operating system. And, if you are moving up from Windows XP, you will find that Windows 7's network interface is a completely different animal than you've encountered before. Whether you're moving up from Windows Vista or Windows XP, keep reading to learn what's new and better in the main building blocks of Windows 7 networking.
Windows 7 continues the automatic wireless network detection feature introduced in Windows XP and refined in Windows Vista. When one or more wireless networks are detected but you are not connected to any of them, the familiar five-bar icon appears in the notification area along with a starburst overlay. Click the icon to display a list of wireless networks. Unsecured networks are marked with the Windows security shield. Click a network to connect to it.
When you select an unsecured network, a warning message appears. If you want to connect automatically, click the checkbox. Click Connect to complete the connection.
On the next dialog, click Public Network to configure the Windows firewall to block access to your shared folders and resources.
Some locations with unsecured wireless access might require you to log in to the service provider's website and agree to terms of service before you can use the connection. Windows 7 prompts you if this is necessary. Click the prompt to open the browser and provide the necessary information.
When you connect to a secured network, all you need to do is enter the network security key (passphrase). You don't need to specify the encryption type (WEP, WPA, or WPA2) as with Windows XP.
The Network folder can be opened from the Start menu when this option is enabled in Start menu configuration or by clicking Network from any Explorer window. It displays the computers on the network and provides links to Network and Sharing Center (an improved version of Windows Vista's Network and Sharing Center), Add a Printer, and Add a Wireless Device. To view shared resources on a listed computer, double-click the computer icon.
To install a network printer, click the Add a Printer link in the Network folder. Select Add a Network, Wireless, or Bluetooth Printer when prompted, and click Next. Select the printer from the list of shared printers, and click Next.
If a printer driver suitable for use with Windows 7 is available, the printer is installed. If not, Windows uses Windows Update to search for a driver online. If Windows Update cannot locate a driver, download and install the driver manually. If a Windows 7 driver is not available, use a Windows Vista driver. Before canceling the Add Printer task, note the address of the network printer, as you might need to browse to it if you perform a manual printer installation.
The Network and Sharing Center, originally introduced in Windows Vista, has been streamlined in Windows 7. You can start it from a link in the Network folder, or from the Network category in Control Panel. As with Windows Vista, the top of the window provides a graphical representation of the connection.
Below the connection diagram, Network and Sharing Center displays the connection type and status. Windows 7 uses Home, Work, and Public to identify the network type instead of the Private and Public terms used by Windows Vista. Here's how a PC connected to a home network via HomeGroup and a PC connected to a work network display their configurations in Network and Sharing Center:
The bottom of the Windows 7 Network and Sharing Center provides links you can use to set up a new connection or network, connect to an existing network, set up a HomeGroup or manual resource sharing, and troubleshoot network problems. This is a cleaner interface than that used by Windows Vista, which listed all of the network options you could choose from, whether you needed to use them or not.
If you need to share folders and printers on your PC with other network users, click the Choose Homegroup and Sharing Options link. If you are not using Home as the Network type, you will see a reminder that you cannot connect to a Homegroup. Click Change Advanced Sharing Settings to see options for sharing, security and other options.
To enable Public folder and print sharing, select the following options:
Turn on Network Discovery
Turn on File and Printer Sharing
Turn on Sharing (for public folders)
If you keep the defaults for the remaining settings, you will need to set up user accounts for other users on the network to enable them to share your resources, or turn off password-protected sharing.
If other users are unable to access your network shares, especially if they are using older versions of Windows or old 802.11b wireless adapters, their systems might not support 128-bit encryption. Select Enable File Sharing for Devices that Use 40 or 56-bit encryption.
To simplify sharing, you can disable password protected file sharing. To do so, select Turn Off Password Protected Sharing.
To enable media streaming to other PCs running Windows Media Center 11 or greater, click Choose Media Streaming Options. Click Allow All on the Media Streaming Options dialog. By enabling media streaming, you can share media with other users, even if you don't share folders or printers, so you can leave file and print sharing turned off. In this example, media streaming has been enabled.
One concern of traditional home networking is security: if you enable security for a Home or Work network, you must configure each computer with shared resources with user accounts for other users on the network. It's not surprising, then, that many home networks disable password protection, and thus have have no security for network shares and printers. To help protect home networks and make security and setup simpler, Windows 7 includes the new HomeGroup feature (a descendent of the Longhorn 'Castles' feature that was planned for Windows Vista, but didn't make the final cut). Keep in mind that HomeGroup can be used only with PCs running Windows 7.
To set up a homegroup, select Home as the network type for each Windows 7 computer you want to add to the homegroup. On one computer, open the Network and Internet category in Control Panel and click HomeGroup. Click Create a Homegroup.
Select the file types you want to share with the homegroup. By default, pictures, videos, music, and printers are shared. You can uncheck any of these, and click Documents to customize sharing. Click Next to continue.
On the next screen, a random alphanumeric password is displayed. You can write it down or click the Print Password and Instructions link to print it. All other PCs joining the homegroup must use the same password. Click Finish.
To add another Windows 7 PC to the homegroup, make sure the network type is set to Home. Then, click the HomeGroup icon in Control Panel's Network and Internet category, and click Join Now. Select what you want to share (you can share a different combination of file types, or no files types at all, on different PCs in the homegroup) and click Next. Enter the HomeGroup password, click Next, and click Finish.
To access the homegroup, click the homegroup icon in Windows Explorer. The HomeGroup library opens, showing shared resources. Double-click the library to open it and access its resources.
You can use the Network and Sharing Center to diagnose network problems in two ways. If you see an X over the connection between your computer and your network or an X over the connection between your network and the Internet in the Network and Sharing Center dialog, click the X to diagnose the problem.
To access other Windows 7 network troubleshooters, click the Troubleshoot Problems link in Network and Sharing Center. Then, select the category you want to troubleshoot: Internet Connections, Shared Folders, HomeGroup, Network Adapter, Incoming Connections, or Printer. In this example, I was unable to view HomeGroup resources after joining a homegroup, so I selected the HomeGroup troubleshooter.
Select a troubleshooter, and Windows performs a series of tests to find and fix the problem. Windows 7 troubleshooters do a better job of solving problems than those provided in earlier versions. After running the HomeGroup troubleshooter, I was able to connect to the HomeGroup.
However, if Windows 7 is unable to determine the problem, it offers additional options.
This feature focus has concentrated on new and improved features in Windows 7's networking. If you need to use familiar command-line utilities such as Tracert, Ping, Arp, IPconfig, and Net, rest assured they're still available for use. The network mapping feature introduced in Windows Vista's Network and Sharing Center is also available in Windows 7.
Windows Vista users will find Windows 7's network features a comfortable upgrade from those in Windows Vista, and Windows XP users will find a new world of network convenience. Both types of users can continue to use manual sharing, or can use as many of the automatic features as they prefer.