HomeGroup is the term Microsoft has assigned to the process of networking PCs, laptops and associated peripherals in a circle of mutual trust. It's a complete change of approach from the way home networking was handled in Vista.

Windows 7 takes a far more laid-back approach, first checking your credentials and giving you a membership badge, then ushering you in whenever you show an interest in doing anything in the HomeGroup.

Members can bring guests too, so you can have a friend over to stay and let them log on to check their email without letting them loose on the contents of your hard drive or any connected drives or PCs in the group.

Better yet, devices that weren't previously welcomed get their own icons, making it easier to work out whether the gadget with built-in storage you just plugged in is the one containing your photos or your work files. File format support is better, Wi-Fi really works and media streaming is pretty smooth.

The catch? It's only smooth and lovely within Windows 7. But we've got tips to help XP and Vista PCs join in, too.


Whether you need to connect to the network to share printers and resources, access and play music or do anything else, you'll find that the entire process is more seamless and intuitive in Windows 7 than it was in either XP or Vista.

It all starts with the Network and Sharing Center. This allows you to find new networks and create connections, verify connection status and troubleshoot network connectivity issues.

At the top is a visual representation of your current connections, plus a link that displays the full map of your network visually. If you lose your connection, this graphic shows the broken connection so you can easily identify the fault.

You can click ‘Troubleshoot problems' at the bottom of the Network and Sharing Center to initiate diagnostic tests that will help you identify and resolve the issue. You can also establish new wireless network or virtual private network (VPN) connections by clicking ‘Set up a new connection or network' and following the prompts.

The lefthand side of the Network and Sharing Center provides links to advanced networking functions, such as changing adaptor settings or managing the Windows Firewall. You can set up separate firewall profiles for Home, Work, Public and so on. The rules are automatically applied as you move from location to location.

HomeGroup security

The HomeGroup is designed to mimic the way people protect their homes. It has a lock to deter unwanted visitors, but internal doors are unlocked and family members are able to move freely within its confines.

In previous versions of Windows, resources shared on the network were generally available to all, so a guest who was allowed to use the network - or an attacker who gains access through weak wireless network security - could access everything. But HomeGroups follow the principle that when guests visit your home, you give them access to common areas such as the living room, but typically you don't let them venture into private areas.

The HomeGroup lets you share files, printers and other resources exclusively with other members. A password login is required. Guests can be granted access to the network so they can get online without having to be invited to join the HomeGroup.

You should also ensure your router has encryption enabled and a secure password.

Creating a HomeGroup

To create a HomeGroup you can select HomeGroup in the Control Panel, use the HomeGroup link at the bottom left of the Network and Sharing Center or click the ‘Choose HomeGroup and sharing options' link from the Network and Sharing Center.

HomeGroup access

Next, click the ‘Create a HomeGroup' button and select the Libraries you want to share with other members of the HomeGroup. Tick or untick the appropriate Library boxes, then click Next.

HomeGroup create

Windows 7 will automatically generate a password for the HomeGroup. Other users will need this in order to join the HomeGroup and share the resources. The password is intentionally complex, but you can change it later from the Sharing options in the Network and Sharing Center.

HomeGroup strong password

Having joined a HomeGroup, click ‘Choose HomeGroup and sharing options'. Here you can specify what is shared from your PCs. You can exclude specific files and folders you don't want others to see.

HomeGroup share media

All versions of Windows 7 can participate in a HomeGroup, but Windows 7 Starter and Home Basic versions can't create a HomeGroup on their own. And it doesn't work with earlier versions of Windows.

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HomeGroup is the term Microsoft has assigned to the process of networking PCs, laptops and associated peripherals in a circle of mutual trust. It's a complete change of approach from the way home networking was handled in Vista.

Sharing photos and videos

With the HomeGroup set up you can share music between devices and stream media to any device connected to the network.

Turn on the media streaming functionality in Windows Media Player (WMP), click Stream and choose your options from the drop-down menu. You can allow other devices to play media from your PC, control WMP remotely, allow media streaming to and from the web and make your music available from anywhere.

This setup can also include devices such as wireless media players and games consoles. It also becomes part of a large, shareable media pool accessible from anywhere on the network.

A PlayTo feature lets you stream songs and playlists to connected devices. PlayTo icons appear at the top of the playlist pane.

HomeGroups in Vista and XP

As we've already seen, HomeGroups are a cinch to set up and use - but only in Windows 7. As Microsoft discovered when it launched Vista, people can be reluctant to upgrade their OS, and most households will still have one or more Windows XP and Vista laptops and PCs. We need a workaround to allow these machines to join in.

Unfortunately, no third-party developer has yet come up with a means of allowing such systems to join a HomeGroup, so changes need to be made to the way they are seen on the network.

You need to have network discovery enabled for any Vista computers you want to be able to see on the home network, while Windows XP users should be able to view other PCs on the network thanks to its more straightforward use of ‘simple' filesharing.

If you can't see PCs running other operating systems, you may need to change MSHOME to WORKGROUP to see a Vista machine. This will allow both types of Windows machines to be seen on the same network map. If you still can't see other devices, run the troubleshooter within Windows. Another common XP fix is to make sure LLTP (link layer topology) is active.

Safely share files and media

Windows 7 was designed as a multi-user OS. It can support many different setups, with each user having appropriate permissions and a customised environment. Every person using Windows 7 must log in with an account, and each account has a personalised desktop, Start menu, Documents folder, History, Favorites and so on.

All of this resides in the Users folder on the root of the system drive, where each account has a sub-folder named after it. As with XP and Vista, maintaining separate user accounts is important, as it lets you set different permissions and prevent your kids accessing your work documents. It also means you can confidently share media without worrying who can access things they shouldn't.

The first account is for the administrator. This person (or any other user assigned administration rights) can create further user accounts and specify the permissions they have. Standard users are permitted to log on to the computer, run programs, customise their accounts and save files in their user folders. But they are prevented from making system-wide changes, such as
to the Registry or security settings.

Create a new user account

To create a new account, open Control Panel and choose ‘User Accounts and Family Safety', ‘Add or remove user accounts'. Click ‘Create a new account'. Type in the new account name, select either the Administrators or Standard Users type, and then click Create Account. Choose Parental Controls settings if required.

HomeGroup new user account

By default, Windows assigns no password; you can make one by clicking on that user's icon and selecting ‘Create a password'.

Account settings can be altered, but only by an administrator. If you've denied permission to run 18-rated games and DVDs to a youngster, they will find it tricky to override this. You may also allow or block particular games.

HomeGroup restrict games

Similarly, you can specify that a user can't browse the web, view streamed TV content and so on after a set time. Parental controls can work in conjunction with Windows Live Family Safety.

HomeGroup parental controls

Guest accounts

Windows 7 includes a Guest account, which has a bare minimum of permissions and is disabled by default. If you want to use this account, right-click Computer on the Start menu and select Manage. This will open Computer Management. Click Local Users and Groups, Users, double-click the Guest account and untick ‘Account is disabled'.

Even if you're the only user, you should have a second Standard account for daily use. Doing so prevents any rogueware from being able to run automatically.