Two big reasons why you’ll like Windows 7

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so difficult to manage and share files in Windows, you’ll be delighted with two significant new features in Windows 7.

These new capabilities, called Libraries and Homegroups, make finding files and connecting with resources on other PCs so easy you’ll think you’re using a Mac!

Windows 7 packs an entire laundry list — nay, several laundry lists — of changes. These include little user-interface tweaks, new glitz and gewgaws, shored-up security (again), reams of troubleshooting tools, and better support for third-party hardware and software.

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In sharp contrast to the more, more, more of past Windows revisions, there’s much less, less, less in Win7. As I mentioned in my Feb. 19 column (paid content), Windows 7 banishes many old applications and replaces them with downloadable Windows Live Essentials. The “Essentials” vary from the useful Windows Live Messenger to the arguably competitive Windows Live Photo Gallery to the hopelessly inept Windows Live Movie Maker beta.

As you would expect, there’s lots to learn about Windows 7, but there’s also lots to like about it. You can get a sneak peek at the new release’s new features on Microsoft’s Windows 7 site. To find out whether your PC is ready for the new OS, download and run the beta of the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor from Microsoft’s download page.

Two of my favorite new Windows 7 features illustrate the complete redesign of the operating system’s plumbing: the Libraries feature brings much-needed generality to the problem of organizing and finding files; and the Homegroups capability makes it easy to share files and hardware on a network, obviating the old obfuscation.

When used together, these two new Windows 7 tools offer unprecedented power for setting up and maintaining a home or small-office network in a way that just makes sense. (Are we sure this is a Microsoft product?)

Searching Libraries beats searching folders

Anyone who’s used Windows Media Player in XP or Vista has encountered the Libraries concept. WMP starts with your personal Music folder and your PC’s Public Music folder, then allows you to add other folders to this Library. For example, you can add a music folder on an external hard drive to WMP’s Library or link to music folders on other networked computers or connect with a music folder on a Windows Home Server.

When you add a folder to WMP’s Library, it doesn’t copy the music. Instead, the program provides easy access to all of the song files in the Library, tracks them, and lets you search and work with them as a group.

There are no limitations to the folders you can add to a WMP Library. As long as your computer can get at the folders — the external drive is plugged into the computer, say, or there are no security rules blocking access to the other computer — WMP treats the music in those folders more or less the same way they would be treated if the files were stored on your own PC.

Windows 7 brings the WMP concept of Libraries to the entire Windows file system. You start with four libraries: Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. As you would expect, the Pictures Library has your Pictures folder and the PC’s Public Pictures Folder, Documents has your Documents folder and Public Documents, and so on. Very simple hooks let you add more folders to those Libraries or create entirely new Libraries.

When Microsoft reworked Windows 7′s Library routines, the company also enhanced the OS’s search function. To put it bluntly, searching a Win7 Library just plain works. Vista’s search interface suffers from the late changes Microsoft made to the OS, which did away with some planned new features but retained vestiges that served only to bollix things up. By contrast, Win7′s search interface benefits from a ground-up design and is much less confusing.

Here’s the magical part: When an application running under Windows 7 looks for the Documents folder, Win7 hands it the entire Documents Library. If you start a graphics program and click File, Open, you don’t go to your Pictures folder. Instead, you open up the Pictures Library.

Why is this a big deal? Imagine that you have a folder on another computer containing documents you commonly use. When you add that folder to your Documents Library, every time you crank up Word and click File, Open, the contents of that remote folder are staring right at you. By the way, Windows Media Player in Win7 doesn’t need separate settings to handle Libraries, because Windows takes care of everything behind the scenes.

Think of Libraries as “Folders: The Next Generation.”

Create virtual networks via Homegroups

If you’ve ever used a house key, you know how to use Homegroups. OK, that’s Microsoft’s analogy, and the process isn’t quite that easy, but it’s close.

First, some background: The first time you connect a Vista PC to a network, you’re asked whether the network is Public, Work, or Home. If you dig deep into the bowels of Vista, however, you discover that there’s no real difference between a Work network and a Home network.

By contrast, Windows 7′s Home networks are special, because they allow you to set up Homegroups. It doesn’t matter whether the network is really in your home, your home office, or a camouflaged Winnebago parked outside the Pentagon. Home networks get treated differently. (In Windows 7, Work networks and Public networks function pretty much the same way they do in Vista.)

If you identify a network as a Home network, Windows 7 reaches out to all the other Windows 7 computers on the network and asks whether they’re part of something called a Homegroup. If Windows 7 finds a Homegroup, it asks you to provide the password for the Homegroup. Enter the correct password and — boom! You’re suddenly attached and sharing all sorts of resources with other computers in the Homegroup.

There are no weird settings to decipher and none of Vista’s 20 questions about Network Discovery, File Sharing, and Password-Protected Sharing. Just a nice, simple network — and creating it requires only a password and a couple of clicks.

If there’s no pre-existing Homegroup, Windows 7 offers to set one up. Other Windows 7 computers on the network identify it as a “Home” network and can link to it simply by entering the Homegroup password. Easy — you know, the way it’s supposed to be (thanks, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young).

By default, computers in a Homegroup share their Pictures, Music, and Video Libraries. Note: I’m talking about Libraries, not folders. The Homegroup members also share their printers by default. However, you’re asked whether you want to share your Documents Library; some people will want to, while others won’t, primarily for security purposes.

If Homegroups sound like precisely the kind of sharing you want for your small office, remember to tell Windows 7 that you’re on a “Home” network. The rest of the process is as easy as falling off a log.

UPDATE 2009-10-01: In his Oct. 1, 2009, column, Woody explains how to use Windows 7′s Homegroups feature to improve connectivity with systems running Windows 7, Vista, and XP.


Homegroups and Libraries enhance file sharing

Say your small network has two Windows 7 computers connected to a Homegroup and each computer has two users. Every time you open Windows Explorer — for example, by clicking Start, Computer or Start, Pictures — Explorer’s left navigation pane shows a Homegroup. Click it to access the Libraries for everyone in the Homegroup.

In this case, you can get into the other user’s Libraries on your computer in addition to the Libraries for both of the users on the second computer.

If one of the users on the other computer adds a folder to her Music Library, for example, that folder is immediately available to you because you’re in the same Homegroup. If somebody on the other computer downloads a bunch of photos from her camera into her Pictures folder, you can find them by going through her Pictures Library in the Homegroup.

Obviously, you don’t want to share sensitive files — that’s why the Homegroup setup makes sharing the Documents Library optional. But for most people, combining Libraries and Homegroups will make networking much easier and more flexible.

This is a tremendous improvement. Finally, disparate parts of Windows are starting to hang together. It’s almost as if somebody planned it to work this way. Amazing! Now, if we could just get rid of those $#@! ribbons ….

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows Vista All-In-One Desk Reference For Dummies and Windows Vista Timesaving Techniques For Dummies — explore what you need to know about Vista in a way that won’t put you to sleep. He and Ed Bott also wrote the encyclopedic Special Edition Using Office 2007.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-05-14:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.