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How Windows Vista Handles Wireless Networking

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Mike Miller explores the new networking features you'll find in Windows Vista, including the next generation TCP/IP stack and improvements made with file and folder sharing.

In this chapter

  • Vista's New Networking Features
  • Under the Hood: Vista's Next Generation TCP/IP Stack
  • Easier File and Folder Sharing

Each new version of Windows has made significant improvements in the operating system's networking capabilities. Back in the days of Windows 95 and Windows 98, networking was a complicated affair for technical experts only; you could set up and configure a network from within Windows, but it took a lot of work. Things got much better with Windows XP, where networking became more or less a plug-and-play operation—albeit one that required a lot of user interaction and didn't always work as promised.

With Windows Vista, things again have changed for the better. Microsoft completely rewrote the networking stack in Vista, which means that networking not only is more reliable, it's also much easier to set up. In fact, in most instances you don't have to do much setup at all; Windows Vista recognizes your network and equipment, and automatically configures the system as necessary. (At least theoretically; networking in Vista can still be counterintuitive at times, and occasionally things don't work quite as promised.)

This is good news if you're setting up a new network for your Vista-based computers—but also useful if you're connecting a Vista PC to an existing network or Wi-Fi hot spot.

Vista's New Networking Features

Let's start by taking a look at all the new networking features you'll find in Windows Vista. What's nice about most of these features is that they put a user-friendly front end on what used to be a highly technical process; there's less technical jargon and fewer detailed configuration settings to deal with.

Setting Up a Wireless Network

For most users, the first exposure to Windows Vista networking comes when you set up a new network. Unlike in past versions of Windows, this is done almost completely automatically. In fact, if you have a wired (Ethernet) network, you don't have to do much of anything; Windows' Link Layer Topology Discovery (LLTD) technology automatically detects any connected computers in a network or workgroup and then configures the appropriate settings.

To set up a wireless network, Vista includes a new Set Up a Wireless Router or Access Point Wizard, shown in Figure 3.1. This wizard not only helps you configure your wireless router, it also sets up file and printer sharing, creates a private network, and then saves the network settings for you to use to configure other computers on your network.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 Use Vista's Set Up a Wireless Router or Access Point Wizard to quickly and easily set up your new wireless network.

And, as easy as Vista networking is to set up, all those technical settings are still there if you need to access them (via the Network and Sharing Center, which we'll discuss later in this chapter). This way Windows Vista networking appeals to both the typical home computer user and experienced networking professionals.

Windows Connect Now Technology

Setting up additional computers on your network is made easier thanks to Vista's new Windows Connect Now (WCN) technology. This feature lets you save the network settings from your main computer to a USB flash drive. You can then insert the USB drive into any other computer on your network, as shown in Figure 3.2, and it automatically reads the data and configures itself as necessary to work with your new network.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 Windows Connect Now technology lets you transfer network settings from one computer to another using a USB flash drive.

Network and Sharing Center

In previous versions of Windows, you had to open the Windows Control Panel and access a variety of configuration utilities to manage your computer network. Network management is easier under Windows Vista, where the home base for all networking activities is the Network and Sharing Center, shown in Figure 3.3. From here, you can navigate to any computer on your network, set up a new network, troubleshoot network-related problems, and otherwise manage your Windows network.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 The home base for Windows Vista networking—the Network and Sharing Center.

The first thing you see in the Network and Sharing Center window is a visual representation of that part of your network to which this computer is connected, in the form of a partial network map. You can view a more complete map of your entire network, like the one shown in Figure 3.4, by clicking the View Full Map link. In both instances, you see all the computers connected to your network, including your network router and wireless devices. This lets you grasp in a glance exactly how your network is set up.

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 A full network map in Windows Vista.

To view the current status of your network—whether it's connected, the connection speed, current activity, and so forth—click the View Status link in the Network and Sharing Center window. This opens the Status window for the network, as shown in Figure 3.5, with appropriate data displayed.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 The Status window for a Windows Vista network.

If you're having problems with your network, you can click the Diagnose button in this dialog box to troubleshoot any network problems. Or, if you're a network professional, click the Properties button to access more detailed network configuration options.

Other network-related functions are also accessible from the Network and Sharing Center. Click the appropriate links to manage file and folder sharing, printer sharing, and the like. As I said, this window is the control center for all of Windows Vista's networking operations.

Network Explorer

If you wanted to access other network resources with Windows XP, you accessed the My Network Places window. With Windows Vista, all your networked computers and shared folders are displayed in the new Network Explorer, shown in Figure 3.6.

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.6 Accessing network computers and shared folders with the Network Explorer.

You can use the Network Explorer to browse content on any connected computer or device, just as you'd browse folders on your PC. Just double-click an icon to open it or view additional content.

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