Windows 7 : Network and Sharing Center

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Most people will simply boot up Windows 7 for the first time, configure the network location for a Home, Work, or Public network location, and go about their business. But Microsoft provides a handy front end to all of the networking-related tasks you'll ever have to complete in Windows 7. Called the Network and Sharing Center, and shown in Figure 1, it is indeed a one-stop shop for all your networking needs.

You can access the Network and Sharing Center from a variety of locations. The most obvious is via the taskbar notification area Network icon discussed in the previous section. Just click it once and then click the Network and Sharing Center link in the pop-up window that appears. We recommend the Start menu approach: open the Start menu and type sharing in Start Menu Search.

However you enable this utility, the Network and Sharing Center provides a wealth of configurable networking information, as outlined in the following sections.

Figure 1. The Network and Sharing Center is a front end to virtually all of your networking needs.

1. Looking at the Network Map

At the top of the Network and Sharing Center window you will see a simple network map depicting the basic relationship between your computer, the local network to which you're connected, and the Internet (see Figure 2). For wired networks, on the top, the network name is simply called Network by default. With wireless networks, the network name represents the actual name that was given to the wireless network.

Figure 2. A basic Network Map


Oddly enough, the items in this basic network map are interactive. If you click the computer icon on the left, a Computer explorer window appears. If you click the Network icon, the Network explorer window appears. And if you click the Internet icon, Internet Explorer opens and navigates to your home page.

The Network and Sharing Center can also display a more detailed network map that shows you a topographical view encompassing other PCs and devices on your home network. You can see this map by clicking the link titled See full map. As shown in Figure 3, this map can be quite full indeed. (More often than not, however, the full map offers information that isn't any more useful than the information provided on the basic map.)

Figure 3. Network Map provides a visual representation of your home network.

2. Viewing Active Networks

Below the basic network map is a list of one or more active (or what you might think of as "connected") networks. Figure 4, for example, shows a computer with two active network connections, one wired and one wireless. It's not hard to imagine other multiple network connections. For example, some people may have wireless network access through a high-speed wireless card provided by their cellular company as well as either an Ethernet-based wired network connection or a traditional Wi-Fi-based wireless network connection.

Figure 4. You can be connected to multiple networks simultaneously.


In Windows Vista, each active network offered various configuration options. For example, you could rename networks, reassign location types, and even change the icon used to represent the network in Network and Sharing Center. These options were all considered frivolous and useless (which they were) and they've been removed from Windows 7 as part of Microsoft's simplification initiatives in this release. Bravo, we say.

3. Changing Network Settings

In this section of the Network and Sharing Center, you can configure a number of proper-ties related to network discovery and sharing. The following settings are available:

  • Set up a new connection or network: This triggers the Set Up a Connection or Network wizard, which enables you to manually configure a new network connection.

  • Connect to a network: This triggers the View Available Networks window, which is also seen when you single-click the Network notification icon.

  • Choose HomeGroup and sharing options: This launches the HomeGroup control panel, from which you configure Windows 7's new HomeGroup sharing feature.

  • Troubleshoot problems: This launches the Network and Internet troubleshooter, which is part of Windows 7's new troubleshooting platform.

4. Setting Up a New Connection or Network

The Set up a new connection or network link in Network and Sharing Center launches the Set Up a Connection or Network wizard, shown in Figure 4. This wizard is a handy front end to all of the network connection types you can create in Windows 7. (You will see more options in this window if you are using a wireless-equipped PC.)

Figure 4. Need to set up a network connection? This is the place to be.

Your options here are many, but Microsoft breaks them down to obvious subsets:

  • Connect to the Internet: Choose this if you need to set up a wireless, wired, or dial-up connection to the Internet. Generally speaking, you will almost never need to use this option, but there are two exceptions. One, you may have a DSL or similar broadband connection type called PPPOE (called Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet) that requires you to actually enter a user name and password before you can get online. Two, you're using a wireless network (though this option will simply launch the View Available Networks window).

  • Set up a new network: If you just purchased a new Internet router or have just recently subscribed to a new Internet service, you may need to access this option, which looks for wireless routers, access points, and other network connection hardware devices on your network—a process that can take quite a bit of time—and then attempts to configure it for you. Frankly, this type of thing is best handled by either the service provider or directly from the device's own user interface, assuming you know what you're doing. But newer network devices based on the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) standard can be configured directly from Windows 7. The wizard will detect your network hardware and settings and then forward you to the networking hardware's Web-based configuration. Of course, this varies from device to device, as will your success rate.

  • Manually connect to a wireless network: This connection type is available only on wireless networks. It provides an alternative to the View Available Networks window and is only really needed when you want to connect to a network connection that does not broadcast its SSID (and is thus normally "invisible"). As shown in Figure 5, you'll need a bit more information than is normally the case, including the name (SSID) of the network, the security and encryption types, and the security key (passcode).

    Figure 5. Windows 7 can help you connect to hidden wireless networks, too.
  • Connect to a workplace: Choose this option if you need to create a VPN (virtual private network) or direct-dial connection to your workplace. Some businesses require a VPN connection so that any connections between your PC and the corporate network are electronically separated from the public Internet, and thus somewhat protected from snooping. You either need a VPN connection or you don't; and if your company doesn't explicitly configure your PC for this feature or provide their own custom VPN software solution, they will provide instructions on how to get it to work.


    VPNs are notoriously finicky and difficult to configure, connect to, and use. For this reason, Windows 7 includes two technologies aimed at helping users who require this sort of connection. The first is VPN Reconnect, which automatically reestablishes lost VPN connections, without any user action. The second is DirectAccess, a simple and secure VPN-like connection technology that may one day render VPN obsolete. There's just one problem with DirectAccess: it requires your workplace to have implemented this feature on the server end as well, functionality that's available only in Windows Server 2008 R2 or newer.

  • Set up a dial-up connection: The 1990s are calling: if you're stuck in dial-up hell (that is, you need to connect to a dial-up Internet connection via a telephone line and computer modem), this option will get you started. Note that traditional dialup services such as AOL and NetZero often provide special software and don't require you to use this sort of interface.

  • Set up a wireless ad hoc (computer to computer) network: This option provides a way to set up a temporary peer-to-peer (P2P) network between two closely located PCs with wireless adapters. Why might you want to do such a thing? It can be a handy way to share files or even a (wired) Internet connection. Note, however, that creating such a network disconnects you from any traditional wireless networks, which is why it's rarely needed or used.

  • Connect to a Bluetooth personal area network (PAN): This connection type is available only on PCs with Bluetooth hardware. It provides access to Windows 7's Bluetooth Personal Area Network Devices explorer, shown in Figure 6. A Bluetooth PAN is a special kind of ad hoc or P2P network that is typically created to facilitate file sharing between a PC and a Bluetooth-capable device, or between a small collection of Bluetooth-capable devices (such as smartphones, Palm devices, and the like). Note that not all Bluetooth-capable devices support PAN functionality, however.

Figure 6. Windows 7's Bluetooth capabilities are best suited for device interoperability.


If you wanted to, you could actually create a PAN between two or more Bluetooth-equipped Windows 7–based PCs. This would enable you to share files using the Bluetooth File Transfer Wizard, shown in Figure 7. That said, Bluetooth connections are pretty slow and require the devices to be very close to each other. You're almost certainly better off sharing files over a traditional network, a temporary ad hoc (P2P) network, or via a USB storage device.

Figure 7. Bluetooth file transfers are okay for smaller files only.

5. Connecting to a Network

Windows 7 offers various ways in which you can connect to networks. The most common, of course, are wired and wireless connections, but wireless networks typically require the most work. With Ethernet-based wired connections, the configuration is simple: you plug one end of the network cable into your PC and connect the other end to your router or other networking interface. If all goes well, you'll be connected to the Internet rather quickly.

For those with a wireless network adapter (including users with both wired and wireless connections), the Set Up a Connection or Network wizard typically presents many more options, as shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8. With a wireless adapter, you'll usually see more connection options.

The View Available Networks window offers more information than you'll see with a wired connection. From this simple interface, shown in Figure 9, you can see which wireless network you're connected to, which kind of access you have, and which other networks are within range.

Figure 9. You'll see more in View Available Networks if you're using a PC with a wireless adapter.


As noted previously, Windows 7's networking stack is dramatically improved over those in older Windows versions; but even Windows 7 can't overcome the limitations and problems caused by home networking equipment and service providers. We've found that many connection problems are caused by either the balkiness of the networking hardware we use or our service providers. In the former case, resetting the hardware gateway/switch often solves connection problems, while resetting the PC's network adapter can sometimes help as well: choose Reset the Network Adapter from the Windows Network Diagnostics wizard to attempt that fix. If the problem is the service provider, sometimes all you can do is call and complain.

6. Managing Network Connections

If you're coming from Windows XP, one of the biggest network-related changes you'll notice in Windows 7 is what happens when you right-click the Network link in the Start menu (called My Network Places in XP) and choose Properties. In XP, this launches Network Connections, a Windows Explorer view of the various networking devices in your PC. In Windows 7, of course, doing this launches the Network and Sharing Center, a much more comprehensive resource for all your networking needs. (In Windows 7, the Start menu does not display a Network link by default.)

What if you really do want to access your network connections for some reason? In Windows 7, you do this by first launching the Network and Sharing Center and then selecting the Tasks link titled Change adapter settings. As in XP, the Explorer location that opens is called Network Connections, and the functionality it provides is virtually identical (see Figure 10). It's just harder to get to.

Figure 10. Windows 7's Network Connections works just like the XP version.

The big difference is that the visible network connection options—shown when you select a particular network connection—appear in the Explorer window's toolbar instead of in a Network Tasks pane, but the options are the same:

  • Disable this network device: Clicking this will disable the device hardware and disconnect you from any connected networks.

  • Diagnose this connection: This launches the Windows Network Diagnostics wizard.

  • Rename this connection: This option enables you to rename the connection from the bland but descriptive defaults Microsoft chooses (e.g., Local Area Connection and Wireless Network Connection).

  • View status of this connection: This launches the connection status window, described previously.

  • Change settings of this connection: This option brings up another blast from the past, the old Network Connection Properties window, from which you can view and configure the various network types, protocols, and other networking technologies supported by the connection. As shown in Figure 11, this dialog hasn't changed much since Windows 95.

Figure 11. Proof that the good old days weren't really that good. Windows networking used to mean actually configuring these options manually.

You may also see a View Bluetooth network devices option if your PC has Bluetooth capabilities. Finally, note that you can right-click a connection to access many of these options.


Because previous versions of Windows didn't provide a handy front end to all of the system's networking features, accessing Network Connections used to be a common activity. However, thanks to the Network and Sharing Center, this is no longer the case. Therefore, while these options are all still available, chances are good you will almost never need to navigate this far into the UI for any reason. You know, unless you're one of those old-school types.

7. Other Network-Related Tasks

In the left side of the Network and Sharing Center, you will see a list of two or three tasks, depending on what types of network connections are available in your PC. (The first task, Manage wireless networks, will not appear unless you have a wireless network adapter.)

  • Manage wireless networks: Clicking this link displays a unique Windows 7 inter-face called Manage Wireless Networks (see Figure 12). From this window, you can configure various options for each wireless connection in your PC, including a rather unique one: you can rename the connection by right-clicking it and choosing Rename. Why would you want to do this? We can't think of a single reason.

    Figure 12. It's like Network Connections, but only for wireless connections, and with some unique extra options.
  • Change adapter settings: As noted previously, this option navigates to the Network Connections explorer.

  • Change advanced sharing settings: This link triggers the Advanced sharing settings window, which enables you to manage network discovery, file and printer sharing, public folder sharing, and other sharing features.

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