File-sharing strategies for Windows 7 and 8

Patrick Marshall

These days, it’s possible to have XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8 all running in the same household or small business.

And though Windows 7 and 8 have similar tools for sharing files over a network, there are differences that might leave you puzzled.

The basics of local-network file sharing

When setting up or troubleshooting file sharing over a home or small-business network, the first step is to make sure all computers on the network are members of the same workgroup. The exception: if you have a laptop that’s usually connected to a corporate domain and is set up as a domain member, you’re going to want to leave it that way.

The default workgroup name for Windows systems is WORKGROUP. But you can use a different name. Simply put, a PC should see all systems on the local network that have the same workgroup name. If you’re attaching a machine to a workgroup, Windows’ System Properties offers a wizard.

To manually change a system’s workgroup name, call up the System Properties dialog box (Figure 1). Click Control Panel/System. In Windows 7 and 8, click the Advanced system settings link. Select the Computer Name tab and click the Change button to enter a new workgroup name (or a new domain or computer name).

System Properties

Figure 1. System Properties offers both a wizard and a manual method for joining domains and workgroups.

Once you’ve got your computers recognizing each other in Windows/File Explorer, you’re ready to start sharing files by designating shared files and folders. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Using homegroups for local folder/file sharing

Microsoft wants you to use Windows’ built-in homegroups to share files. They’re essentially preconfigured groupings of shared files and printers. Typically, homegroups are easy to set up, but they also have a few limitations and potential performance issues. For example, XP systems cannot join a homegroup. File transfers might be noticeably slower over a homegroup than via a standard workgroup connection.

Homegroups are available in Windows 8.1, Windows RT 8.1 and Windows 7, with a few important caveats. With Win7 Starter, Win7 Home Basic, and Windows RT 8.1, you can join a homegroup but not create one. With RT, you also can’t share local content with others. Systems set up as domain members can also join (but not create) homegroups.

Typically, Windows 7 prompts users to create or join a homegroup when a PC is first connected to a network. Windows 8 doesn’t — when you set up a Win8.1 PC, a homegroup is created automatically if there are no other homegroups on the network. If there’s another computer on the network with a homegroup, the utility will notify you and display a Join now button (see Figure 2). If you click the button, you’ll be prompted to enter the homegroup password.

Join homegroup

Figure 2. If your network already has a homegroup, Windows should automatically ask whether you want to join it.

Before joining a homegroup, however, I recommend clicking the Change advanced sharing settings link. The Advanced sharing settings dialog box lets you configure resources for the network. The tool offers three sections: Private (the current network profile), Guest or Public, and All Networks. This utility’s organizational scheme can be confusing; here’s what it covers:

  • In the Private and Guest or Public sections, you can specify whether network discovery is enabled plus whether file and printer sharing is on or off. You’ll want to leave these options on because, after all, you want your computers to see each other and to share files.
  • The All Networks section is more interesting. Here you can specify whether users on other computers can access Public Folders (we’ll get to these shortly) and designate which devices on the network can stream media across the network.

    To accommodate older devices, you can also opt to lower the encryption standard used by the network. Finally, you can determine whether password-protected sharing is implemented on the current computer. If you activate this, users will need to have an account on the computer in order to share files.

    Advanced sharing settings

    Figure 3. The All Networks section of Advanced sharing settings allows you to password-protect shared files.

When you’ve finished with Advanced sharing settings, you can click on the Save button and be returned to the previous screen. Click the Join now button, and you’ll then be prompted to select which folders you want to share.

The Share with other homegroup members dialog box can be a bit confusing at first. Keep in mind that you’re not designating file types; you’re designating folders stored under your user profile. Selecting Shared in the Video category, for example, means that only those files in your Video library or folder can be accessed by others. Videos stored in other directories won’t be shared.

Choose shared files and devices

Figure 4. Windows lets you control what to share in Windows' default file folders and libraries; your two options are Shared or Not shared.

Click the Next button to actually join the homegroup. You’ll then be able to navigate the shared resources of other computers by going to the Homegroup section in Windows/File Explorer.

For more details on Windows homegroups, see Microsoft’s Windows features page, “HomeGroup.”

Share files over the network via Public folders

Whether a system is joined to a homegroup or is simply part of a workgroup, you can use the Public folder to share files with anyone who has access to your computer, either over the network or locally. If you created a homegroup, the Public folder is enabled automatically. If not, you need to turn the Public folder on.

To do so, open Windows/File Explorer and navigate to C:\Users\Public. In Win7, click Share with in the Windows Explorer menu bar; in Win8, select the Share tab in File Explorer. Select Advanced sharing settings. In Win7, locate the Public folder sharing section and turn on sharing. In Win8, expand the All Networks section and go to the Public folder sharing section to turn on the Public folder option.

Again, once you’ve enabled the Public folder, any files saved to that folder or subfolders will be available to all users with access to that computer. Keep in mind, however, that each system’s Public folder is separate from the Public folders on all other systems. It’s not a single folder that’s shared across the network.

Once you’ve enabled the Public folder, I recommend making it a new Library. Right-click its name and select Include in library.

Set up sharing for specific files and folders

I generally don’t use Windows’ default data folders; I find it more convenient to create my own hierarchy of folders. (Keep in mind that custom folders should be included in a library, if you want them automatically backed up by Win8’s File History.) Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to designate individual folders, subfolders, and files for sharing with yourself, a homegroup, or other specific users.

If you’re using Win8, just highlight the folder in File Explorer and select the Share tab. Win7’s Windows Explorer doesn’t have tabs, but you can access most of the same functions by clicking on the Share with option in Explorer’s menu bar. (With either operating system, right-clicking the folder gives you most of the same options.)

In Win8, the Share tab will list other user accounts on the local system. Select a specific user or scroll down to Specific people, which opens the File Sharing dialog box. You can also select the homegroup if one is enabled. In the homegroup entry, choosing either the view or view and edit option (see Figure 5) lets you allow or prevent others from making changes to the file or folder.

Win8 file share options

Figure 5. Windows 8's new Share tab in File Explorer makes it easier to select folders and files for sharing.

In Win7, click Share with and then Specific people; that opens a File Sharing dialog box similar to Win8’s.

Curiously, if you want to make a specific folder (other than the Public folder) available to everyone on your network, you must jump through a few extra hoops. You must open the file/folder’s properties, select the Sharing tab, and click Share.

Win8 gives other sharing options. Under the Share tab, you’ll find options for emailing, printing, faxing, or zipping a file or folder plus burning it to disc. (See Figure 5).

In Win8, if you want to refine control over who can do what with the contents of a shared file/folder, select the Advanced security option from the Share tab. The Advanced Security Settings utility will open, as shown in Figure 6.

File-sharing privileges

Figure 6. Win8's Advanced Security Settings tool lets you set file- and folder-sharing privileges for individual users.

Double-click a specific user, and the Permission Entry dialog box opens (see Figure 7.) You can also specify, among other things, whether those permissions also extend to subfolders and files in those subfolders.

User permissions

Figure 7. The advanced permissions dialog box lets you specify what a specific user can do with selected folders and files.

Win7 also lets you set specific user permissions for files and folders, but you’ll find them in a different place. Right-click the folder and select Properties, then click either the Sharing or Security tabs. Under Sharing, select Advanced Sharing and then Permissions. In the Security tab, highlight the user and then click Edit. (This also works in Windows 8.)

Setting up shared files and folders manually takes some work, but it obviously lets you finely control who can access — and to what level — the data on a PC. When you want to access something shared on another computer, you simply go to the Network section of Windows/File Explorer’s navigation panel, click the Expand button for a specific system, and open the file/folder you’re looking for.

The cloud: Sharing your data with yourself

Homegroups and shared folders make it easy to give others access to your data. They also let you access your data across multiple computers on the local network. But a more flexible solution is going to the cloud. Services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft’s OneDrive make it exceptionally easy to sync your data across multiple machines and mobile devices. You can also access your data from any Internet-attached browser, and you can share files and folders with others across the Internet with relative ease.

But cloud-based file/folder storage does have drawbacks — apart from the subscription fees incurred if you go beyond the free-storage limits. For example, you often can’t grant different permissions to different people. More important, you usually can’t sync files between systems on a local network without also uploading that date to the cloud — where, again, you have to contend with possible storage fees.

No single-best way to share your data

To share files and folders — with yourself and with others — it’s likely that you’ll use different sharing methods for different purposes.

Homegroups make it easy to share data in Windows-defined folders, especially if you don’t need to apply different permissions for each file and folder for different users.

Public Folders are the way to go if you just want to provide open access to selected files, especially if you want to share with other users of the same computer.

Manually specifying shared files and folders — and even drives — is the best option when you want to exercise tight access control or if you prefer to save data in your own directory structures.

Finally, cloud storage is the ideal choice for synching files and folders across multiple devices and when you’re not connected to the local network. As a bonus, you’re also making an offsite backup of important data.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-05-22:

Patrick Marshall

About Patrick Marshall

Patrick Marshall is a regular technology columnist for The Seattle Times. He has also written for Government Computer News, InfoWorld, PC World, the Congressional Quarterly, and other publications.