Vista's Networking Central: A Reason to Reconsider

By Joseph Moran | Posted April 18, 2008

Windows Vista has been out for well over a year now, and it's no secret that plenty of people have opted to forgo Microsoft's newest operating system. With the recent release of Vista's Service Pack 1, this is changing, however. Many people who previously chose to stick with the (relatively) tried and true XP may now consider making the switch.

If you've used XP for seven years or so, trying to navigate Vista can lead to a bit of head scratching, especially when it comes to dealing with networking configuration options. This week, we'll apply a bit of a balm, as we explore the basics of the Windows Network and Sharing Center, the place in Vista where you can access pretty much any network-related setting.

Several paths lead to the Network and Sharing Center. The easiest path is by right-clicking the network icon (the one that looks like two monitors and a globe) in the Windows tray, where you'll find a link to it. You can also get there by starting to type the utility name into the Start menus search box. By the time you've entered "netw," it should appear close to the top of the results list.

Where Am I?

Prominently displayed atop the Network and Sharing Center is a graphical map depicting your system's current connection status to both the local network and to the Internet. When something goes awry with these connections, the link lines (which are solid for wired connections and broken for wireless ones) will display a red X, and the unreachable items will be grayed out.

Clicking View Full Map in the upper right corner of the Network and Sharing Center will open an expanded map in a separate window that offers a big-picture view of the network by showing other connected computers, as well as network devices like routers and switches. Depending on the device, moving the cursor over its icon will display its basic network info. In some cases, right-clicking will provide specific options, like the ability to explore the contents of a computer or access a router's administration page.

Not all networked devices will appear in Vista's Network Map, either because their firewall settings prevent detection or because they don't support Link Layer Topology Discovery (LLTD), a networking protocol that a device or computer must support to be included in the map. For example, XP systems don't support LLTD, although you can add it via an update from Microsoft. Systems or devices that Vista can see but not include in the map will be shown separately at the bottom.

Viewing and Configuring Connections

Beneath the Network and Sharing Center's basic network status map, you'll find a list of all the network connections configured on your system. This includes both physical and virtual network links, so in addition to things like your Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection, you may also see entries pertaining to certain kinds of network application software, like virtual machine or VPN software (e.g., Virtual PC, Parallels or Hamachi).

Vista will automatically name each network connection, and it often does so with a nondescript label like "network" or "unidentified network." If you click the Customize link for a particular connection, you can rename it something more meaningful, and by clicking the change you can give it a more descriptive icon as well (such as a house for your home network or a coffee cup for your favorite hotspot).

While you're at it, this is a good time to verify whether Vista is using the correct location type — Public or Private — for a given connection. The latter is the setting you want for things like your home or work network, as it will allow your system to see — and be seen by — other devices on the network. Conversely, any unfamiliar or public network should be set to Public to help protect your system from unauthorized or malicious access. An administrator account is required when changing the network type or any setting marked with the Windows multicolor security shield.

Getting Detailed Info

Want more technical detail on a network connection? Clicking View status link for a particular connection will bring up a dialog box very similar to XP's Network Properties that will display the speed of the connection, how long it's been up, and how much data has been transferred. From here you can also click the appropriate buttons to disable the connection or Vista can attempt to diagnose it if it's not working properly. Finally, clicking on the Details button will give you the kind of info you would get from an IPCONFIG command, such as the connection's IP address plus the addresses for its DNS servers and default gateway.

That about covers the basics of Vista's Network and Sharing Center. Next week we'll explore the Sharing and Discovery settings, which allow you to configure sharing for things like folders, printers and multimedia files.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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