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Vista: network evolution

Network support in Vista is amazing.

This article appears as part of the April 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents

How times have changed. When Windows 95 was released 12 years ago, network support was a standard feature. The supported network standards were limited, however. You either used NetBEUI to set up a peer network or IPX to connect to a Novell client-server network. While TPC/IP was provided, it wasn't installed by default.

In comparison, Network support in Vista is amazing. TCP/IP has become the de facto networking protocol for LANs (local area networks) and internet access, while NetBEUI and IPX aren't supported at all. Vista ships with native support for IPv4 (the current 32bit version of IP-based networking) and IPv6 (the 128bit successor to IPv4). As a result, Vista networking will be good for the foreseeable future.

Networking under Windows has been a story of evolution rather than revolution, and so it is with Vista. Windows XP made wired networking more or less plug-and-play, while wireless networking was greatly simplified when Microsoft had the good sense to release XP Service Pack 2.

But the most significant change to networking under Vista is largely invisible: Vista's network stack has been completely rewritten. Under the glossy Aero interface lies much improved, faster, more robust networking. Now it's easy to hook up to wired, wireless and WiMax networks.

Thankfully, a lot of the old networking techno-babble has been toned down. This makes it easier for novices to hook up sophisticated networking hardware.

The hub of connectivity in Vista is the Network and Sharing Center, which centralises networking options and shows basic connectivity information at a glance. Here, you can specify whether you want a private or public network, the latter offering more limited 'discovery' and program restrictions.

The Network and Sharing Center replaces previous iterations of Windows' My Network Places and Network Neighborhood. To access it, go to Start and choose Network from the list on the right. You'll find that all network components are listed in detail, including network media players, routers and wireless access points.

If you're having connectivity problems, a quick check of the Network and Sharing Center will show you where the problem lies. This visual approach is easy to follow: here you can see that my PC is connected to the network (the router, actually), but the red cross tells me that my network has no internet connection.

Underneath the list of network devices, you'll see a section labelled Sharing and Discovery. Before looking for network connections, Vista asks whether it may make your computer discoverable and whether it should seek and share network status publicly, or for members of your private network only.

To set up a connection, double-click on this option from the Task list. This launches a wizard that will connect you to the internet, a wireless router or access point, a dialup connection, VPN or a Bluetooth personal area network. Alternatively, go to Start, Connect To and choose a connection type from the list.

When you connect to a network for the first time, you must specify the type of network location: Home, Work or Public Place. Vista will adjust the firewall settings accordingly. Use Public if you are using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, or choose Home if you want the option of sharing files, devices and network browsing.

Vista allows you to associate each network type with its own 'profile'. This includes the IP address, DNS server, proxy server and other network features specific to a network's profile. From then on Vista can simply pull the settings from the saved profile, so there's no need to re-enter these details every time.

File- and folder-sharing is handled differently in Vista than under XP. Now, when you right-click on a folder and choose Share, you're presented with a wizard-based dialog where you can choose which users may access the folder and the permission level they have: Owner, Reader, Contributor or Co-owner.

To check on the state of your network connection, click on the Task Manager or use the Vista Resource Manager. You can see at a glance which applications or services are accessing the network and which IP address they're talking to. You can also view lots more information on CPU, disk and memory performance.

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