Windows Vista Networking Features

For many years, networking was the private playground of IT panjandrums. Its obscure lingo and arcane hardware were familiar to only this small coterie of computer cognoscenti. Workers who needed access to network resources had to pay obeisance to these powers-that-be, genuflecting in just the right way, tossing in the odd salaam or two.

Lately, however, we've seen a democratization of networking. Thanks to the trend away from mainframes and toward client/server setups, thanks to the migration from dumb terminals to smarter PCs, and thanks to the advent of easy peer-to-peer setups, networking is no longer the sole province of the elite.

Getting connected to an existing network, or setting up your own network in a small office or home office, has never been easier. This is particularly true with Windows Vista, which comes with a completely revamped network architecture that's designed to make networking with Vista easier and more robust.

The Network Center

Windows Vista always displays a Network icon in the taskbar's notification area. The version of the icon you see depends on the current network status. When Vista is connected to a network with Internet access, it displays the version of the Network icon shown in Figure 1.

For a network without Internet access, the Network icon appears without the globe, shown in Figure 2.

Finally, if Vista cannot make a connection to any network, you see the Network icon shown in Figure 3.

Whichever icon you see in the notification area, if you double-click the icon, Vista displays the new Network Center window. You can also get to the Network Center by opening the Control Panel and clicking the View Network Status and Tasks link or, if you're using Classic view, double-clicking the Network Center icon.

Network Center is the Windows Vista networking hub that shows you the current status of your connection and gives you quick access to many networking tasks. The window is divided into four areas:

  • Status This section gives you a mini version of the network map: a visual display of the current connection.
  • Network Details This section tells you the name of the network to which you're connected, the network category (private or public), whether you have Internet access via that connection, and which of your computer connections is in use (this will usually be either Local Area Connection for a wired connection or Wireless Network Connection). If you're connected to multiple networks or have multiple connections to a single network (wired and wireless, for example), all the connections appear here.
  • General This area shows the current network detection and sharing settings.
  • Tasks This pane on the left side of the Network Center window gives you one-click access to the most common network tasks.

Connecting to a Network

If you don't have a current connection, the Network Center window doesn't show a network icon, the network map shows a red X through the connection line, and the status in Network Details is Not Connected. To get connected, you have three ways to get started:

  • Select Start, Connect To.
  • Right-click the Network icon in the notification area and then select Connect To.
  • In the Network Center, click the Connect To link in the tasks pane.

Vista displays a list of available networks. If it's a wireless network that requires a WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) or WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) security key, you see the dialog box.

If all goes well, the connection succeeds and Vista displays a dialog box. Note that you have two connection options for wireless networks:

  • Save This Network - Leave this check box activated to tell Vista to always connect to it when you're within range. If you deactivate this check box instead, you'll need to manually connect each time. This might be what you want if you have the choice of several networks to connect to.
  • Make This Network Available to Anyone Using This Computer - Leave this check box deactivated if this is a secure network that you do not want other people who use your computer to access. If you activate this check box instead, every user will be able to connect to the network.

Creating a Manual Wireless Network Connection

As a security precaution, some wireless networks are set up with SSIDService Set Identifier, which is the network namebroadcasting disabled. This means that when you display the list of networks within range, networks that don't broadcast their SSID don't appear in the list.

If you know that a network is within range but it doesn't appear in the list of available networks, you can still add the network manually. Click the Set Up a Connection or Network link, click Manually Connect to a Wireless Network, and then click Next. Vista displays the dialog box. You use this dialog box to enter the network particulars, including the SSID (the Network Name), Security Type, Encryption Type, and Security Key (if required). Click Next to connect.

Creating an Ad Hoc Wireless Network Connection

If you don't have a wireless access point, Vista enables you to set up a temporary network between two or more computers. This is called an ad hoc connection. In the list of available networks, click the Set Up a Connection or Network link, click Create an Ad Hoc (Computer-to-Computer) Network, click Next, and then click Next again.

Vista displays the dialog box. You use this dialog box to enter the Network Name, choose the Security Type, and specify the Security key (if required). Click Next, select a file and printer sharing option, and click Next to create the network.

When that's done, other people within 30 feet of your computer will see your ad hoc network in their list of available networks. Note that the network remains available as long as at least one computer is connected to it, including the computer that created the network. The network is discarded when all computers have disconnected from it.

Personalizing the Network

When you first open the Network Center, in most cases, you won't have a profile set up for the network, so Vista displays a default network name in either the Network Map or Network Details sectionsusually either Network or the SSID of the wireless network. To fix this, click Personalize to display the Personalize Settings dialog box. Type a name in the Network text box, and then click OK. Vista updates the Network Center window with the new profile name.

Network Map

The new Network Map feature gives you a visual display of everything your computer is connected to: network connections (wired and wireless), ad hoc (computer-to-computer) connections, and Internet connections. Network Map also gives you a visual display of the connection status so you can easily spot problems.

In the Network Center, the Status group displays your local portion of the network map, and the layout depends on your current connections, of course. You always see an icon for your computer on the left. If your computer is connected to a network, a green line joins the computer icon and a generic network icon.

If the network is connected to the Internet, then another green line joins the network icon and the Internet icon on the right. If there is no connection, you see a red X through the connection line. Windows Vista also comes with a more detailed version of Network Map. To view it, you have two choices:

  • In the Network Center, click the View Full Map link.
  • In the Control Panel, open the Network Map icon.