Windows 7: Home

A central foundation of Windows 7 for home users is the brand new HomeGroup feature. It’s a recognition on Microsoft’s part that a number of households have two or three PCs and laptops, all networked and often sharing files and media in a less-than-ideal, ad hoc way. Windows XP and Vista’s Public folders have proved almost completely opaque and stupidly difficult to navigate, and sharing folders across different operating systems is a horrible experience.

HomeGroup brings the inherently tricky concept of network sharing into a friendlier and more easily accessible interface, at least in theory. In practice, the insistent offers to join a group as soon as you get a Windows 7 computer on to the network are an annoying barrier to just getting yourself up and running. And if you do decide to set one up straight off the bat, user friendliness isn’t helped by the setup wizard generating a fearsome-looking ten-character password. Rather than offering to automatically copy this password to a USB flash drive, it awkwardly suggests you write it down. You’ll then need to type it manually into any other PCs to join the HomeGroup.

That’s the bad news. The good is that once you’ve set up a HomeGroup, it will show up on other Windows 7 PCs (alas, not XP or Vista machines) as being available to join in the Network and Sharing Center. Once you’ve joined up, an icon for the group appears in Explorer’s left-hand pane, containing default library categories that mirror those of local document libraries (read on for more on those), and you can add files and folders in the same way. It’s simple and intuitive, and the confusion of public document directories with Windows Vista is solved.

HomeGroup sidesteps the inconvenience of having to install printer drivers on every machine in the home
HomeGroup also sidesteps the inconvenience of having to install printer drivers on every machine in the home. Once the printer has been installed on the first PC in the HomeGroup, the drivers are automatically installed on any subsequent Windows 7 PC that joins the network, so you won’t have to go ferreting around cupboards for the CD-ROM or download drivers afresh.

What HomeGroup doesn’t address is the perennial difficulty of sharing folders between Windows 7, Vista and XP machines. That’s a shame since the biggest stumbling block for casual home networks is the apparently random interactions between the different operating systems, and the labyrinthine permission-setting procedures you need to navigate to get a Windows XP computer talking to a Windows Vista or Windows 7 one. Essentially, Microsoft is saying that for easy home networking you’re going to have to abandon or upgrade your old systems to Windows 7, which is far from ideal. But we have to say that the ease of HomeGroup networking, once you’ve made the effort to set one up, is a powerful argument for abandoning the old OSes.

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