Learn Your Way Around Networking in Windows 7

By Eric Geier

November 02, 2009

Along with its much-touted usability improvements, Windows 7 introduces a streamlined networking interface. Learn all about HomeGroups and improved file sharing.

Besides the interface changes everyone's spotting in Windows 7, another big change can be found in the networking features. The network icon in the system tray offers more functionality, making it quicker and easier to connect to Wi-Fi networks. The Network and Sharing Center that debuted in Windows Vista has been streamlined. Plus you'll find a completely new feature, called HomeGroup.

Managing Wi-Fi Connections via the Network Icon

In both Windows XP and Vista, you had to click the network icon in the system tray and select a shortcut to bring up the list of available wireless networks—taking four clicks to initiate a connection. However, Microsoft has made it a bit easier to view and connect to Wi-Fi networks in Windows 7.

Improved Windows 7 Network Icon
Figure 1.

Simply click on the network icon to see a list of nearby networks right away—this reduces the amount of clicks to make a connection.

Figure 1 shows an example of the new window that pops up after clicking the network icon. The detected networks are shown along with a signal indicator and any alerts, such as for unsecured networks.

When you hover over the networks, you'll see two additional pieces of information: the encryption type (such as WEP or WPA) and the Wi-Fi standard (such as 802.11g or 802.11n).

To connect (or disconnect) to a network, click the desired network and then click the Connect (or Disconnect) button that appears.

Tour the Streamlined Network and Sharing Center

Microsoft kept the Network and Sharing Center it introduced in Windows Vista. However, it made a few changes to streamline the center in Windows 7. Let's take a look.

A network diagram
Figure 2.

To access the Network and Sharing Center, click or right-click the network icon in the system tray and click the shortcut, like in Windows XP and Vista.

As you can see in Figure 2, the simple network diagram still appears on top. You can also click the link to see the full map. As Figure 3 shows, you can hover over the network devices on the full map, such as your router to see its IP and MAC address. In addition, you can click on devices to bring up their shares or management page.

Under the network diagram on the Network and Sharing Center window, you'll find the current connection details. Microsoft made some modifications to this section. It still lets you know the network name and type you're connected to, shows the signal bars, and tells you what network access you have, local only or internet.

Hover to get more information from network icons
Figure 3.
The biggest change in the connection details section is the addition of the HomeGroup status and shortcut. We'll discuss this new feature after touring the whole center.

You might also notice that the Customize link to modify the network type has been removed. Now you can click the network type link, Home, Work, or Public depending upon the current setting. Another minor change is the removal of the View Status link. To bring up more details you can click directly on the network connection name.

Next on the center is shortcuts to other network settings and wizards, some moved from the left task pane. This area used to be dedicated to the Sharing and Discovery settings. To access these settings now, you can click the Change advanced sharing settings link on the left pane.

If you're wondering where the two links are that were on the bottom in Vista, look no more, they've been removed. To see all the folders you're sharing on the network, bring up the computer from the Network window.

Discover How to Network Easily With HomeGroup

Windows 7 Libraries
Figure 4.

HomeGroup is a new feature that makes sharing with others on the network easier and more secure. Someone on the network can create a HomeGroup and distribute the password so other computers can join. HomeGroup members can choose which Libraries to share with the other members and whether or not to offer printer access.

Only users with Windows 7, however, can participate in HomeGroups. You can use the traditional methods to share with XP or Vista computers.

Haven't figured out what Libraries are yet? See Figure 4. They are essentially an enhanced version of the personal folders. They are virtual folders that you can add real folders to. By default, your personal and public folders are added to the associated Libraries. For example, the Documents Library includes your Documents folder (C:UserYourUserNameDocuments) and the public Documents folder (C:UserPublicDocuments).

Windows 7 Homegroups
Figure 5.

If you have other places where you store documents, you can add those locations to the Library. That way you can access all your documents from a single starting place. Plus when you share a Library in a HomeGroup, all the included folders are shared.

To create a HomeGroup, open the Network and Sharing Center and click the Ready to create link. Then on the next window, click the Create a homegroup button. On the dialog box that appears (see Figure 5), select the Libraries you want to share and click Next. Then you'll be given a password for the HomeGroup so others can join.

On other Windows 7 computers, open the Network and Sharing Center to join the HomeGroup. Then from each computer you can access the HomeGroup from Windows Explorer windows, such as the Computer window. You can always access the Network window to view computers loaded with previous versions of Windows.

Eric Geier is the author of many networking and computing books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007).



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