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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.