Solving Windows 7 networking problems

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Win7-to-Win7 networking may be easy, but connecting your new Win7 system to older PCs with previous versions of Windows or non-Windows systems can sometimes be a real headache.

Firewalls and Win7’s HomeGroups are usually the primary culprits, but the following step-by-step tips should help solve your networking troubles with minimal hassle.

Win7 can’t see his network shares

Reader Bob Johnston is setting up a mixed-bag local network — Win7, XP, Linux, and some network-attached storage (NAS) devices — but is running into a fairly common snag.
  • “I am embarrassed to admit that I am having a problem with Win7 Pro that I cannot resolve. My background is Win XP (expert level) with a brief exposure to Vista while awaiting Win7. Since installing Win7, I have not been able to access my NAS drives. They are fully operational from my other XP and Linux work stations.

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    “I can access the drives via HTTP from Win7, but it refuses under all circumstances to see these drives as standard network drives. I have searched and searched, and all of the recommendations have proved futile. Surely there is some simple remedy!”
When Win7 systems won’t network well to older devices, your first order of business is to check on third-party firewalls. I’ve done several dozen Win7 setups so far, and in most of the cases where networking was a problem, a third-party firewall was the culprit.

Win7’s HomeGroup feature accounts for nearly all of the other network problems I’ve seen. (I’ll come back to HomeGroups in a moment.) But in your case, Bob, I do suspect it’s a firewall problem. You can connect by some network protocols (e.g., HTTP) but not others. That means the basic connectivity is there, but full access is being blocked — probably by a closed port, bad “rule,” or some other firewall issue.

Try this:
  • Step 1. Make your network safe from outside attack by disconnecting your LAN from the external world (i.e., unplug the data cable that feeds your cable-box/DSL/modem/whatever). Your machines are now connected only to each other, locally.

  • Step 2. It’s now safe to remove or disable the firewalls on all your systems and devices. With no firewalls running, you should be able to get your network fully up and running. Don’t set up or enable a HomeGroup on the Win7 box(es) yet — just concentrate on getting the basic networking going.

    If there’s still trouble, see the list of resources later in this article for information on deeper troubleshooting. But with the firewalls gone, odds are you’ll now be able to get everything working as it should.

  • Step 3. Once you have all the connections working, you can re-enable your firewalls. Do one machine at a time. As each firewall goes active, it should then see and allow (or ask you to allow) the new connections.

    Windows 7’s built-in firewall knows how to handle HomeGroups and is also fairly transparent to standard Windows LANs. So if a third-party firewall proves to be an obstacle, consider using Windows’ own firewall — at least on the Win7 box.

  • Step 4. Reconnect to the outside world (i.e., restore your Internet access). I’ll bet you now have full connectivity.

As mentioned above, when firewalls aren’t the cause of Win7 networking trouble, I’ve usually found a HomeGroup to be the problem. Win7’s HomeGroup feature is aimed at casual users and is a mostly-automatic way to set up network shares (files, folders, devices, etc.). But HomeGroup — and related security elements of Win7 networking such as 128-bit encryption for shared files — introduces new and added complexity into your local networking mix.

Bob, you already set up and configured a heterogeneous LAN, so you already know how to do network shares. I suggest you avoid using a homegroup. Just do your network shares yourself, the normal way. That’s what I do on my mixed Win7/Vista/XP/Linux LAN.

Still stuck? Here are some resources (moving from the general to the specific) that should get you going.

Microsoft info:
  • HomeGroups, explained on Microsoft’s “Win7 Features” page
  • “Networking the easy way in Windows 7″ page
  • Win7 “File-sharing essentials” page
  • Microsoft’s answer to the question, “What is the difference between a domain, a workgroup, and a HomeGroup?”
  • From the Answers forum, a discussion of solutions to the problems of connecting Win7 to older Windows versions.
Excellent third-party how-tos and more:
  • RDweb.com’s “The HomeGroup Feature: How it Works” article
  • Neowin.net’s “Windows 7: HomeGroup Overview” article
  • HowToGeek.com how-to, “Share Files and Printers between Windows 7 and XP”
  • Cnet.com’s article, “Windows 7 and XP networking made easy”
  • InformIT.com’s “How to Network Windows 7, Vista, and XP Computers” article
  • Windows7Forums.com’s discussion, “Windows networking fixed!!(w7 to xp)”
Is TechNet snooping on you?

Stan Lubowicki saw something odd when he connected to a Microsoft Web server.
  • “I enjoyed Fred Langa’s article, ‘Fine-tune your Registry for faster startups.’ When I went to the mentioned PageDefrag v2.32 Technet page, I noticed my CPU freaking out — see attached pic.

    “What are they up to? I can only assume it’s something evil or, at the very least, sneaky.”
Here’s the screen grab Stan sent:

unusual cpu activity
Figure 1. Stan’s CPU showed unusual activity when he visited Microsoft’s TechNet site.

The page in question has a small frame for an ad. The ad can display streaming content, an animated image, or other active content. Most likely, the activity you saw was caused by the ad doing its thing — trying to draw your attention.

Of course, this isn’t specific to the Microsoft site: any site with complex and auto-refreshing ads can trigger this kind of activity.

But it’s also possible that some other task was actually eating your CPU cycles while you happened to be on that page. After all, it’s unlikely that your browser was the only piece of software running at the time.

Whenever you want to check out unusual CPU activity, there’s an easy way to see what specific software is responsible. Like Stan’s performance graph in Figure 1, it’s available in Task Manager — just on a different tab.

To access Task Manager, press Ctrl + Alt + Del. (Vista and Win7 users then have to select “Start Task Manager.”) Click the Processes tab. You’ll see a list of the software currently running on your system, along with some information about each item.

what's consuming your cpu cycles
Figure 2. Task Manager’s Processes tab lets you see exactly what’s consuming your CPU cycles.

The numbers in the CPU column represent the approximate current percentage of CPU time that each listed piece of software is using. Click the CPU column header to descending-sort the display. The numbers jump around a bit because they’re updated every second, but over a span of several seconds, the most CPU-intensive software should bubble to the top of the list.

This way, you can narrow down the source of any unusual CPU activity and get an idea of what’s going on.

For more information, see “Free software sheds light on PC activity” in Gizmo Richards’s article today.

Where did ‘Documents and Settings’ go in Win7?

R. Jones recently upgraded from XP to Win7 and can’t access some familiar folders.
  • “Why is access to the Documents and Settings folder denied in Windows 7? Why the change from XP? If you know a way to gain access, please tell how.”
The XP way of organizing things had “Documents and Settings” as a top-level folder, with subfolders for each user. For example, each user’s “My Documents” folder was located as follows, where username is the user’s sign-in name:

C:Documents and SettingsusernameMy Documents

Starting with Vista, Microsoft reorganized things, placing the user first (which actually makes more sense, when you think about it — documents belong to users, not the other way around). Now, each user’s Documents folder is located at:

C:UsersusernameDocuments

Vista and Win7 retain a kind of shortcut with the old names to help older software find the new locations. But they’re not actual folders. That’s why you can’t access them.

Just explore C:Users and its subfolders, and you’ll find the stuff that used to be under C:Documents and Settings. It’s just organized a little differently — and a little better, I think.

Kill those darned thumbs.db files!

Charles Vanderford wants to rid his system of those pesky thumbs.db files.
  • “I have Win7 Home Premium on my desktop PC and want to prevent the OS from inserting all those stupid thumbs.db files. To do that I, understand I need to run the Global Policy Editor. But as you know, that feature is not included with Home Premium. I’d gladly hack the Registry manually, but don’t have the link. Appreciate any help you can provide.”
There are actually several ways to disable the creation of thumbs.db files. An excellent article at ITGuyFixIt.com called “Removing/Disable Thumbs.db: Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7″ provides manual methods as well as downloadable Registry patches that can automatically turn off the thumbs.db feature for you.

If, unlike Charles, you do have the Group Policy Editor (gpedit.msc) available on your machine, the Technoleros.com article, “Turn off Caching of Windows 7 Thumbnails in Hidden thumbs.db Files,” offers a nice walk-through for using that tool.

Either way, if you don’t want thumbs.db files, they’re gone!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.