Networking With Windows 7, Vista, and XP
Sharing files on a Windows 7 system with other PCs running older versions of Windows can be confusing. Windows 7 has two new features that can frustrate users who are trying to connect to a Windows 7 system when on XP or Vista: HomeGroups and Libraries.
When you first fire up a Windows 7 system, it asks if you want to create a homegroup. Generally, just say Yes. Windows will then present you with a key--a password--that you need to enter on other Windows 7 systems to make them part of the same homegroup. The HomeGroups feature makes Windows 7 connections dead simple.
However, Windows XP and Windows Vista don't understand homegroups. Microsoft recommends two different ways of connecting older PCs to Windows 7 systems.
First, you can create a special account that's just for sharing. Create the account with an easy-to-remember password, and then give that information to anyone on the home network who needs to connect to the Windows 7 machine. If you do this, make sure that the sharing account is a standard account (not an administrator account), to enable better security.
The second way is to go to the advanced-networking control panel and check the box labeled Use user accounts and passwords to connect to other computers. This works, but you do end up with the headache of having to log in.
Finally, if you just can't connect, go back and check to make sure that all the PCs have both IPv4 and IPv6 installed, as I mentioned earlier. This has been my biggest issue when visitors bring over their older Windows XP laptops and try to connect to my home network.
Do you use libraries in Windows 7? Keep in mind that a Windows XP system will see all the folders in the library, but not the library name itself. Just be aware of this behavior--it's very easy to get accustomed to using libraries, only to find that you can't access them in the same way with a previous version of Windows.
Miscellaneous Tips and Tricks
Still struggling with networking problems? Below is a grab bag of tips and tricks for dealing with particular issues.
Check for the home-network setting: When you first fire up Windows Vista or Windows 7, you're faced with a decision--are you on a home network, a work network, or a public network? If the system is a laptop, you may have been tempted to select 'Public network', because you're often in airports or coffee shops and you want to keep your laptop secure.
Don't do this. For your home network, you want to select the 'Home network' setting; otherwise, sharing can be problematic. If you did select 'Public network' for your home network, you can easily change that by bringing up the 'Network and Sharing Center' and clicking the Public network link, which presents you with the original dialog box to select the network type.
Use mapped drives rather than network locations: Creating a network location is easy--too easy, as a matter of fact. All you do is open My Computer and right-click on any open area. One of the property sheet selections is 'Add a network location'. You type in the network share location (\\servername\foldername), and then you can open that location by double-clicking on it, as you would any file folder. Simple, right?
And it is simple--until you use an application that requires a drive letter. In my case, on my Windows Home Server I've stored photographs that are older than two years, and various apps that I use to edit photos or otherwise manipulate folders want drive letters, not network locations. So I created a mapped drive. To do the same, look at the top of the My Computer screen for the Map Network Drive link, and click it. Select a drive letter, and enter the network location. Now you can access that network location by using standard Windows drive-letter syntax.
Know your (Windows) limits: Windows 7 Home Basic and Windows 7 Starter cannot create homegroups; they can only join them. Stay aware of this, as you'll need to join them to your homegroup manually by using the password key you created on another system.
Windows 7 users, take advantage of homegroups: When you first bring up Windows 7, it's tempting to skip the step that creates a homegroup. Don't ignore it, particularly if you're running more than one Windows 7 PC. Once you create a homegroup, connecting between machines is easy. Furthermore, Windows 7 puts no limits on the number of systems that can join a homegroup.
Use the troubleshooter: Use the Windows 7 networking troubleshooter if you're still having problems. Sure, you can always search the Internet, but the networking troubleshooter in Windows 7 is surprisingly capable, especially when compared with that of earlier Windows versions. You can find the networking troubleshooter in the 'Network and Sharing Center', at the bottom of the page.