While many Windows Home Server users are nervous about the Active Directory domain configuration in Windows Server 2012 Essentials, connecting and using client PCs in this environment is fairly painless and seamless. In fact, it’s not much different from using Windows 8 with a Microsoft account or local account.

While I’ll be examining the many administrative issues that arise while using Windows Server 2012 Essentials in future articles and just focus on the client experience here, we should at least touch on one important and related point. This article does assume that you’ve installed the server and are ready to start adding clients to the new domain you added during Setup. That all happens through a single (but important) Setup screen:

domain-setup

Done? Good. Here’s what it’s like to join and use this domain.

From any Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC (Pro or higher: Domains do not work with the “home” versions of Windows), navigate with IE or anther web browser to the new server’s web site, which is preconfigured with page for downloading and installing the so-called Connector software. This page can be found at http://server-name/connect where, obviously, server-name­ is replaced with the actual name of your server. (This is the third value you entered in the Setup screen shown previously.)

The software you download and install here achieves a few things. First, it configures your PC to connect to the domain, rather than to a workgroup, as is the (silent) default in Windows 7 and 8. You will need to supply a valid domain user name—you’re prompted to create two such accounts during Essentials 2012 Setup, one an administrator and one a standard user, but you can (and maybe should) create other domain accounts in the server’s Dashboard at any time—and then reboot the PC, during which time the configurations are made, some automatically, and some in response to a short wizard you’ll need to step through.

Once it’s done, you can now sign in to the domain. The first time you do this with Windows 8, you’ll see an empty sign-in screen with text boxes for your domain account’s user name and password. It notes the domain name (THURROTT in my case) below the password box.

first-sign-in

Don’t worry, though: Subsequent sign-ins work just like before where the user name is pre-filled in, and if you want, you can use a PIN or picture password as before, too.

signin

When you sign-in and navigate to the desktop, you’ll see some information about migrating files and applications from your old user account to the domain user account—this is straightforward and involves that old standby Windows Easy Transfer—and two new Essentials 2012 applications, Launchpad and Dashboard.

win8-desktop

The Launchpad application is a simple front-end to some common server tasks—Backup, Remote Web Access, shared folders, and Dashboard—and provides a server alert notification, which you will find to be annoying and “noisy,” offering up way too many notifications about unimportant server events. (More on that in the future.) I usually configure Launchpad to always startup minimized so I don’t need to deal with it. But you can (and should) spend a bit of time looking at the Launchpad settings, which let you tone down or even remove server alert notifications, among other things.

launchpad

Dashboard is a RemoteApp version of the Dashboard management console you can also run directly on the server. This lets you administer the server without signing into the server interactively or using Remote Desktop.

dashboard

I’ll be writing a lot more about actually administering this server later, so for now you can pretty much forget about most of this, though I do recommend thinking about configuring PC backup if you intend to use Essentials 2012 for that purpose. You can configure backup from the Launchpad application, or through the Dashboard in Devices.

At this point, Windows 8 should be working exactly as before, with one big difference: You’ve lost the ability to automatically connect to online services and sync settings through your Microsoft account (since you’re now signing on with a domain). So if you run one of Windows 8’s connected apps, you’ll be prompted to add a Microsoft account.

add-ms-account

Rather than doing this, however, you can follow the advice in my article Windows 8 Tip: Sign in to a Domain and Still Use Live Services and globally link the domain account to a Microsoft account. You do this through PC Settings, Users.

pc-settings-users

Just tap the Connect your Microsoft account button, enter your Microsoft account credentials, and Windows 8 will work exactly as before.

And that, really, is the point: With just about zero configuration, you can be up and running with Windows Server 2012 Essentials very easily, and despite the fact that there’s now a domain running in your environment, it works much as with Windows Home Server: Centralized PC backup works. You’ve got a central location for your important documents and other data. You can share media as before (once you enable it on the server), though not over a homegroup. (Essentials 2012, like all domain-based Windows Server versions, is not homegroup compatible.) It’s all very similar, nearly identical really.

But there are additional benefits, too. Essentials 2012 supports Storage Spaces, so that centralized storage can be made redundant, cheaply and easily. Windows 8 PCs connected to the server automatically utilize Essentials 2012’s centralized File History backup functionality (in addition to the traditional image-based backups). This means that File History is stored on the server, with a portion of it cached on the PC, too, so it works when you’re not connected to the network.

file-history

You can also optionally implement a very simple set of group policies via a wizard that will apply security settings for Windows Update, Windows Defender, and the firewall on each connected PC, ensuring that your PCs are always secure. And as part of this wizard, you can configure folder redirection settings, by which you can redirect any or all user folders to the server, providing a more seamless experience for those that sign in to different PCs regularly.

More on that later. For now, the important thing to know is that while using a domain can add some complexity, as you’ll see when we look at the Dashboard and other administrative interfaces, it doesn't have to be very different for users. In fact, it’s almost identical.