Windows Vista Features: Networking Features

August 8, 2008

It’s hard to even remember this far back, but when Microsoft launched Windows 95 over a decade ago, the product included the TCP/IP networking features necessary for accessing the Internet, but it wasn’t enabled out of the box. Nope, Windows 95 defaulted to Microsoft’s proprietary NetBEUI, a LAN Manager-based protocol, though I’m sure a vast number of 95 users, at least early on, accessed IPX/SPX Netware networks as well. The Internet, in 1995, was just starting to hit, and networking, especially home networking, was fairly rare.

Today, home networking equipment is so inexpensive that I keep expecting to see a wireless router fall out of my box of Cheerios. Standardization on TCP/IP, the emergence of the Internet, and killer online services such as Google, Amazon.com, MySpace, and many others have made networking a de facto feature of all operating systems and many applications as well. And that networking, of course, is all based on TCP/IP today.

As a first-class networking citizen, Windows Vista ships with native support for both IPv4 (the current 32-bit version of IP-based networking) and IPv6 (the 128-bit successor to IPv4 that has yet to really catch on). That means that Vista is future-proof, from a networking perspective. But Vista also improves on the networking features in Windows XP in a variety of dramatic ways. Let’s take a look.

Networking Features

While Windows XP made wired networking a plug and play affair, and Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) took away much of the pain with connecting to various types of wireless networks, with Windows Vista Microsoft finally took the enormous step of completely rewriting the networking stack. That means that Windows Vista features a lot of new UI, most of it quite good, as well as completely reworked underpinnings. The result is a system that is amazingly easy to connect to a variety of network types, be them wired, wireless (Wi-Fi), or wireless (WWAN), such as Verizon’s EV-DO network, which I’m now testing on my Vista-based Lenovo ThinkPad.

The nicest part of this new networking work, from the user’s perspective, is that Microsoft has removed the technical jargon without dumbing it down too much for power users. So when you connect to a new network of any kind for the first time, Vista will display a dialog in which you can choose between three plain-English profiles: Home, Work, and Public. Each of these profiles configures various networking settings accordingly. So for example, in your Home-type network, you will have access to connected PCs and devices and shared printers, and your own PC will broadcast its shared resources. On a Public network, however, such as one you might access in a Starbucks or an airport lounge, your system will be locked down, offering you Internet access, but hiding your PC from the world. That’s smart.

Smarter still, each network type has its own profile. So at home, my ThinkPad connects to the home network using Home, but to EV-DO using Public. And if you power users really want to get in there and configure stuff, you can: Microsoft’s created a nifty new Network and Sharing Center that provides you with access to every networking option you can think of.

Network and Sharing Center

The Network and Sharing Center is your one-stop shop for all your networking needs. Here, you can access each of the network types you’ve configured, determine the sharing and discovery options for network discovery, file sharing, public folder sharing, printer sharing, password protected sharing, and media sharing, as well as more advanced networking features such as your actual network connections. You can also jump to other networking-related parts of the Vista UI, such as Network (the replacement for My Network Places), Internet Options, and Windows Firewall.

The best part about Network and Sharing Center is that most people will never even need to access this control panel. Instead, you will simply choose a networking profile from the simple wizard-based network discovery dialog I discussed early and move on from there.

Wireless networking, too, is much simpler than it was in XP. As with XP SP2, Vista supplies a list of available wireless networks, from which you can connect and disconnect. But this time around, this dialog is more connected with the rest of the system; you can right-click selected networks and access more information, such as the Status and Properties dialogs, as well as a new Diagnose option for when things aren’t working properly.

The new Network and Sharing Center is a wonderful addition to Windows Vista, but the take away here is that this bit of UI is only the tip of the iceberg: Underneath the covers, Microsoft has rearchitected the Windows networking stack to be more efficient and easier to use. This is good news for everyone.

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