Networking is one of XP’s strong points. Earlier versions of Windows had their foibles, but XP offers easy connectivity, simple configuration and file and printer sharing at the tick of a box – and it’s easy to switch features on and off for each user.
Yet Microsoft hasn’t rested on its laurels. Vista offers a range of networking enhancements, including a two-way firewall and support for IPv6 (the “next-generation” internet protocol, set to gradually replace IPv4, which is now showing its age of 20 years). A nifty new globe icon in the System Tray shows at a glance when a computer has access to the internet. Recognising the risks of the wireless age, Microsoft has also added the new “network location” setting, which applies security settings depending on the type of network you’re connected to. It’s confusing to use, though, with some requesters dividing networks into three sections (home, office and public place) and others referring to just two (public and private).
Vista also features a new Network and Sharing Center. This applet is supposed to make network configuration easier, but in practice it gives you almost no useful tools or information – just a range of sharing options that most people will only ever need when they first connect to a network.
There are some annoying steps backward, too. In XP, dead network connections could often be resuscitated with the Repair function, which simply flushed the connection settings and reconnected. In Vista, this has been replaced by Diagnose and Repair – a process that sits and grinds for 30 seconds trying (and normally failing) to identify the cause of the problem before you’re given the option to reconnect.
Worse, some Vista users have experienced a bug that causes cross-network file copy operations to take up to ten times as long as they should, making it hugely inconvenient to use Vista on a network. Numerous fixes have been suggested, including more than one official patch from Microsoft, but no universal cure has yet been found. We live in hope that one will be included in the forthcoming SP1, but until then it’s a black mark against Vista.
XP – 9
A proven system that delivers features while remaining easy to configure, although lack of IPv6 could be an issue in future.
Vista – 8
Some new networking features are worthwhile, but others lead to an overall user experience that’s worse than in XP.