Note: This article is adapted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 9, Networking and HomeGroups --Paul
Generally speaking, networking is designed to facilitate two things: a connection between your PC and the outside world?including other PCs as well as the Internet?and sharing resources between your PC and the outside world. For the latter case, Microsoft has been building sharing features into Windows for years in the form of shared folders, shared printers, and shared media libraries, and this functionality is even easier to use in Windows 7 than they were in XP or Vista because of the advent of HomeGroup sharing.
When you think of "sharing" with regards to PCs on home networks, you generally mean two types of resources: Files and printers. For a long time, Microsoft has supported sharing these types of resources in various ways, but there was always a level of complexity involved. In Windows, there's a better way. And while it requires two or more PCs in your home to be using Windows 7, the end result is worth it: HomeGroup sharing makes sharing documents, music, pictures, video, and other files, as well as printers, easier than ever.
Secret: HomeGroup sharing does not replace the workgroup network scheme that was previously discussed. In fact, to use HomeGroup sharing fully, you must be on a workgroup. That is, HomeGroup sharing does not work with domain networks like those found in corporations, at least not fully. (You can join a homegroup from a domain-based computer, but the sharing is one way only, from the homegroup to the domain-based PC.) It is very specifically a consumer-oriented feature aimed at home users.
Tip: It's very important to understand HomeGroup permissions. With the old-style workgroup sharing scheme, shared resources are global in that they work across all of the user accounts configured on a PC, but in order to access shared folders on other PCs, you would need to make sure each PC has user accounts with the same names and passwords. With homegroups, shared resources are also global in the sense that they work across all user accounts. But the ability to access shared resources is also global: To connect a PC to a homegroup, you just need the homegroup password. And once you're in, you're in. And that's true for all user accounts.
Secret: Microsoft's use of the word HomeGroup may seem inconsistent because the word appears variously as HomeGroup, Homegroup, and homegroup throughout the Windows 7 user interface. However, Microsoft tells us this is all by design. The word HomeGroup is a trademarked term and refers to the Windows 7 sharing feature. A homegroup, meanwhile, is the generic "thing" that is created by the feature, as we will see. And if you see it spelled as Homegroup (with a capital 'H' but a small 'g' that's just because it's a title or other place in the UI where an initial capitalization is required. Seriously, they told us this.
HomeGroup sharing is so important to Windows 7 that Microsoft actually makes joining or creating a homegroup part of the Windows 7 Setup experience. As you can see from this figure, you're given this opportunity in one of the final phases of Setup.
You can create or join a homegroup during Windows 7 Setup.
I recommend not configuring a homegroup until you've already gotten Windows 7 up and running. If you run the HomeGroup control panel (either by typing homegroup in Start Menu Search or by clicking the Choose homegroup and sharing options in Network and Sharing Center) in Windows 7, you'll see a window like that shown here.
The HomeGroup control panel is ready to make network-based resource sharing easier than ever.
Tip: Well, you'll probably see that window. Depending on the status of homegroup sharing and your network connection type, you may see that this computer already belongs to a homegroup, that there is already an existing homegroup configured on the current network that you can try to join, or, if you're joined to a Public network (or domain), that you cannot connect to a homegroup. Here, we will assume that you are setting up a homegroup for the first time.
To create your homegroup, click the Create a homegroup button. The Create a Homegroup wizard appears, as shown below. From this window, you can choose which resources you'd like to share. These include pictures, music, videos, documents, and printers.
When setting up a new HomeGroup, the first step is to determine which resources you'd like to share.
Once you've chosen, click Next. HomeGroup will set up your homegroup and then you'll be presented with the password, as seen in the figure below. The wizard recommends jotting this password down, as you will need it on other PCs that want to join the homegroup, but you can skip that step: We're going to change the homegroup's password next.
The Create a Homegroup wizard provides a homegroup password, but you can change it later.
Click Finish to close the wizard.
Once a homegroup has been created on your network, you can connect to it from other PCs. To do so, you will again access the HomeGroup control panel. Only this time, because there is already a homegroup on the network, the window looks a bit different.
If there's already a homegroup on the network, the HomeGroup control panel will let you connect.
Secret:You can only configure one homegroup per network.
To join the existing homegroup, click the Join now button. You will be prompted to enter the homegroup password before you are allowed to join.
Once you've created or connected to a homegroup, you can use the HomeGroup control panel to configure it in various ways. As you can see in the figure below, once there is a homegroup on your network and you are joined to that homegroup, the HomeGroup control panel changes yet again. Now, it's designed to help you make changes to the homegroup configuration.
Once you're joined, you can start configuring your homegroup.
Secret: Homegroups are not tied to the PC from which they were created. Instead, any PC that is joined to the homegroup can be used to make configuration changes.
Here are the changes you can make to your homegroup from this interface.
Change which resources you're sharing from this PC. At the top of the HomeGroup control panel is a section called Share libraries and printers. From here, you can check (enable) and uncheck (disable) the sharing of pictures, documents, music, videos, and printers. The first four items are shared on a per-Library basis.
Secret: You can, however, share other items via the homegroup. There are two instances in which this may be desirable. First, you may have created custom libraries. Or, you may simply have a folder of whatever files somewhere, outside of a library, that you'd like to share. To share non-standard libraries or any other folders via your homegroup, simply navigate to that location with Windows Explorer. Then, click the Share toolbar button and choose Share with and then either Homegroup (Read) (for read-only access) or Homegroup (Read/Write) (for full access).
Share media with devices. Since all media sharing now occurs via the HomeGroup mechanism, you can access the Media Sharing options window.
View or print the homegroup password. This one is pretty self-explanatory but note that you cannot change the homegroup password from this interface.
Change the password. This allows you to change the homegroup password. I recommend doing so, and using a password that you will remember if you need to join the homegroup from another PC.
Change advanced sharing settings. This enormous window (below) lets you access a number of important network- and sharing-related features. These include network discovery (which determines whether your PC can find other computers and devices on the network and vice versa), file and printer sharing (which can be globally enabled or disabled), public folder sharing (which again can be globally enabled or disabled), media streaming (which is accessed via a separate Media streaming options interface), password protected sharing (which affects the old-school sharing methods), and HomeGroup connections (which determines whether to allow Windows to utilize simple homegroup-based sharing or revert to the sharing technologies provided by previous Windows versions).
Advanced sharing settings is dumping group for networking and sharing options that have no other home.
Secret: All of the settings in Advanced sharing settings can be configured separately for Home/Work networks and Public networks. As you might imagine, most of these options tend to be enabled for wide open sharing on Home or Work network types, and are disabled by default on Public network types.
Finally, you can use this interface to trigger a HomeGroup troubleshooter.
There's much more going on with homegroup sharing and networking in Windows 7, but you'll have to check out Windows 7 Secrets for the rest, including Windows 7 networking features, network locations, using Network and Sharing Center, Network Maps, connecting to networks, setting up connections and networks, managing network connections, and old-school network sharing. The book is available now from Amazon.com and other booksellers. Click here to find out more about Windows 7 Secrets.