Things to love about networking in Windows Vista

Microsoft breaks a long, sad history of getting networking wrong with Vista representing a breakthrough in Windows-based networking

Vista is the first version of Windows created for a world where networks and wireless access are ubiquitous. One of Microsoft's goals in creating Windows Vista was to take advantage of that constant connectivity.

Did Microsoft get it right? In a lot of ways, I think it did, and I found plenty of reasons why Windows Vista represents a breakthrough in Windows-based networking. So here are seven things you'll love about networking with Vista.

By the way, I won't be letting Microsoft off the hook -- in a follow-up article, I'll clue you on in things you'll hate about Vista and networking as well.

The Network and Sharing Center

Microsoft has a long, sad history of getting networking wrong. Looking to manage a network, connect to a network, change your network settings, see an overview of your network at a glance, or set up file sharing? In the past, performing those tasks in Windows was enough to make a grown man (or woman) shudder.

Thanks to Vista's Network and Sharing Center, that's largely changed. On a single screen, you get a visual overview your network, and have all the tools you'll need to accomplish just about any network-related task, from file-sharing to changing your network name, connecting to a network, setting up a new one, managing network connections, repairing broken connections and more.

One of the Network and Sharing Center's coolest new tools is the Network Map. Click "View Full Map" from the Network and Sharing Center, and a complete, live map will be drawn of all the devices and PCs on your network. Click on a device or hover over it to get more details. For example, click a PC and you'll see the shared network files and folders on it. Hover your mouse over a device such as a gateway and details such as its IP address and MAC address will be displayed.

The Network and Sharing Center also does an excellent job of putting file-sharing options in a single, simple-to-configure interface.

Does that mean the Network and Sharing Center is perfect? Far from it. The Network Map tends to be flaky in its support of non-Vista PCs, for example. Still, this is a big step forward for networking with Windows.

Better wireless networking

What do I love second-most about networking in Vista? Hands down, it's the way it handles wireless networking. With Vista, it's far easier to manage your connections to multiple wireless networks, maintain connections to those networks and customize how and when you connect. In a world that's increasingly wireless, and in which many people connect to multiple wireless networks -- at home, at the office and in public hot spots -- this is a very big deal.

The improvements start off with the basics; even the connection screen is improved. As with XP, you see at a glance all networks within range, but there's more here than in XP, as you can see in the nearby figure. Hover your mouse over any network, and you'll get the rundown about its basic details, including the type of network (802.11b, 802.11g and so on), whether security is being used, and if so, what kind (WEP or WPA, for example).

When you first make a connection, you can now name each new wireless connection and save it, and then have Vista connect to that network automatically when you're in range. Let's say, for example, you use a wireless network at home, another at work and another at a public hot spot near your house. Name each connection, tell Vista to automatically connect to each when you're in range, and you won't have fumble with dialog boxes or settings ever again. Whenever you're in range of one of your named networks, you'll automatically make the connection.

What if you're in range of two wireless networks that you've saved? As you can see in the nearby screen, you can configure your wireless connections so that one wireless connection can take precedence over another.

Vista also helps make sure you don't connect to the wrong network. Windows XP automatically connects to the strongest nearby network, which causes problems if the strongest network isn't necessarily the one to which you wanted to connect. With Vista, you first have to accept a wireless connection as one of your permanent ones before it will connect automatically. In this way, you'll automatically connect to only the networks you want, even if more powerful ones are nearby.

Network search

It sometimes seems as if it's easier to find a needle in a haystack than a file on a network. With Windows XP, there was simply no way to do an adequate network search.

Much has been made of Windows Vista's greatly improved searching capabilities, notably the speed with which it searches, and its myriad search options. Lost in all that talk, though, has been the useful fact that you can use those same searching capabilities to find on any PC that has enabled file sharing on your network.

Searching across the network is as simple as searching your own PC. Click Search on the Start menu, and from the Search screen, click Advanced Search. In the "Location" drop-down box, select "Choose search locations." Expand the Network entry, and put check boxes next to each PC that you want to search. If you want, you can specify only particular folders to search on each PC. As you add PCs and folders, they will appear at the bottom of the screen, as you can see in the nearby figure.

Click OK when you're done, and you'll be sent back to the Advanced Search screen. The Location drop-down box will list all the networks computers and folders you'll be searching. Now just perform a search as you would normally. The search results will appear just as they normally do, except that each result will also identify its network location. You can then open them, right from the search dialog.

Improved file and folder sharing

In Windows XP, sharing files across a network was not particularly simple to do. There was no single location to go to turn on and off file sharing, view your shared folders and files and configure how you want files and folders shared.

Windows Vista changes all that. File sharing is front and center on the Network and Sharing Center, as you can see in the nearby figure. You can see at a glance what file-sharing features you're using -- sharing files, sharing public folders, sharing printers, using network discovery and so on. To configure any feature or option, click the down arrow associated with it, and a pane appears that lets you change the option.

The Windows Sidebar

Strictly speaking, the Windows Sidebar doesn't have anything directly to do with networking. It's a way to put neat little gadgets on the desktop to display information and automatically perform all kind of nifty tasks.

Where gadgets really shine, though, is when they're combined with a network or the Internet. They can route live information to you, and constantly update it without your intervention. Even though Windows Vista isn't yet formally released, there are already plenty of gadgets for the sidebar that do this, mostly available at Microsoft's Windows Vista Gadgets site. (To get there, on the Sidebar click the + sign, and from the screen that appears, choose "Get more gadgets online.") One of the niftiest gadgets is IP Config, which displays your current IP address in both IPv4 and IPv6 formats. If you're connected to multiple networks, it will display your IP address for each.

There are plenty of other network-related gadgets, such as for getting stock quotes and weather information and displaying RSS feeds and feeds from Digg. There's even one that displays the current threat level, as determined by the federal Department of Homeland Security. Expect there to be plenty more networking-related gadgets when Windows Vista ships.

OK, I admit that for most of you, this one might be a snore -- Windows Vista supports IPv6, the next-generation version of IP. The great odds are you don't use IPv6 now, and won't in the next year or two. But ultimately, IPv6 is coming, and with it, will come not only a larger networking address space, but also other benefits as well, such as better network-layer security, built-in support for multicasting, automatic configuration of hosts, and better support for Quality of Service (QoS). So if it means nothing to you now, it will mean something to you or your networking administrator in a few years.

Better security

Microsoft, through the years, has been justifiably criticized because of Windows' myriad security holes. Securing a network and individual PCs has been, to say the least, a difficult task.

Microsoft set a goal of making Windows Vista a more secure operating system than XP, and to a good extent, it has succeeded. It finally updated the Windows Firewall so that it blocks outbound as well as inbound connections, a much-overdue improvement. And Internet Explorer has also been made far more secure, with the addition of an anti-phishing filter.

It's not just what you see that's been improved, though -- there's a lot going on under the hood that offers much-needed networking and Internet security. There's a new Protected Mode for Internet Explorer, which runs by default. When in Protected Mode, Internet Explorer can't modify user or system files or settings, making Web browsing far safer. IE also now has protections against cross-domain scripting attacks. And other invisible security improvements in the plumbing of Windows Vista, such as Network Access Protection, keep you safe as well, even though you don't see it.

Other things to love ... and hate

There are plenty of other network-related improvement in Vista in addition to all this. Internet Explorer finally has tabbed browsing (Hallelujah!), and built-in RSS support. And overall, a redesigned Network and Internet Control Panel makes it much simpler to access network-related resources and tasks.

Does that mean that everything related to networking in Vista is hunky dory? Far from it. There are plenty of things I hate as well -- as you'll find out in the next article in this series.

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Preston Gralla

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