Sharing is easy with Windows 7’s homegroups

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

The most misunderstood new feature in Windows 7 may be homegroups, which lets you share files, media, and printers across Win7 PCs quickly and easily — if you know a few tricks.

I’ve seen a lot of bad advice online about Windows 7 homegroups, however, so let’s delve into the belly of the beast to learn the facts.

What you need to run Windows 7’s homegroups

I talked about homegroups in my May 14 Top Story, “Two big reasons why you’ll like Windows 7.” Microsoft’s new OS is set to appear on store shelves later this month. Unfortunately, misinformation about this important subject is all over the Web. Here are the basics:

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To create or join a homegroup, your PC must be running Windows 7

Systems running Vista and XP can’t participate in homegroups, nor can Macs or Linux computers. That isn’t so dire as it sounds, however.

Regardless of whether your Windows 7 PC is a member of a homegroup, it can still communicate with other computers on your network using the old-fashioned Windows sharing methods you’ve come to know and hate over the years.

Say your network consists of two Windows 7 PCs and an old XP clunker with an attached shared printer. The Win7 PCs can still use the printer. And the XP machine can retrieve data on the homegrouped Windows 7 PCs via the standard XP/Vista peer-to-peer sharing methods. The main difference is that Win7 PCs in a homegroup get folders and printers served up to them on a silver platter.

UPDATE 2009-11-05: In his Nov. 5, 2009, column, Woody describes how to set up and maintain networks with a mix of Windows 7, Vista, and XP PCs.

It’s important to note that any Windows 7 PC can join a homegroup, but the system setting up the homegroup must be running a version of Windows 7 other than Starter or Home Basic.

To set up or join a homegroup, your PC must be attached to a “Home” network

This sounds mysterious, but creating a Home network is really pretty easy. When you set up a network connection, Windows asks whether the link should be treated as a Public, Work, or Home network. Behind the scenes, choosing a network type is just a handy way of selecting a whole bunch of security settings. In Windows 7, choosing a Home network allows your PC to join or create a homegroup.

You say you don’t know whether your system’s on a Home network? Not to worry. Open the Control Panel. Under the Network and Internet heading, choose View network status and tasks. Below the heading “View your active networks” you’ll see a house icon — how homey can you get, eh? — to indicate that you’re hooked into a Home network. (See Figure 1.)

Win7 home network house icon
Figure 1. The house icon indicates that you’re connected to a Home network in Windows 7’s Network and Sharing Center.

If you’re on a Work or Public network and want to change to a Home network, click either of the links labeled Work network or Public network, choose Home network, and click Close. Not quite rocket science.

Many folks who write to me are confused about Home networks. “Home” is just a nom de guerre for a bunch of security settings. You don’t have to be at home to run a Home network, and a Home network can include Macs. The term “Home” refers only to the way your PC treats the network. You wouldn’t normally identify a network connection in a public place such as a coffee shop as a “Home” connection. But in most other cases, a Home network will suffice.

To join an existing homegroup, you have to know the password

Retrieving a homegroup password is easy. Sign in to a PC attached to the homegroup and click Start, Control Panel. Under the Network and Internet heading, click Choose homegroup and sharing options and then select View or print the homegroup password.

To use a homegroup, your PC must be running IPv6

I’ve heard several complaints from Win7 users who claim homegroups don’t work. In many cases, the situation can be described by the old Walt Kelly Pogoism, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” If you haven’t messed around with the innards of your Windows 7 machine, IPv6 is running by default. But if you’ve been fooling with Mother Nature, you may have turned off IPv6. Your bad.

Setting up a homegroup requires a wake-up call

Every time you attach a Win7 PC to a network and tell Windows you’re using a Home network, the OS sniffs around the network to see whether there are any Windows 7 PCs attached to it. If there are, Windows then checks to determine whether any of the machines belong to a homegroup.

Several people have contacted me to complain that Win7 PCs that are newly attached to a network don’t discover an existing homegroup. The most common reason for the failure? All the PCs in the homegroup are hibernating. To solve the problem, make sure at least one of the systems in the homegroup wakes up. It only takes one.

If Windows 7 doesn’t detect any kindred spirits on the network that are connected to a homegroup, it offers to set up a homegroup for you.

To set up a new homegroup, you must first select which “libraries” to offer to other PCs. For most people, the big question about homegroups is whether you want to share your Documents library with other PCs attached to the homegroup. By default, Windows doesn’t offer to share your Documents library. (See Figure 2.)

Homegroup folder-sharing options
Figure 2. Using Win7’s “Create a homegroup” dialog, select the folders you want to share with other PCs in your homegroup.

The precise sharing details — which folders get shared and who has read and write access — can get a bit complicated, although it’s all quite logical. I cover the details in Chapter 1 of Book 7 of Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies (Wiley). Info on the book is available from Amazon: United States / Canada / Elsewhere

After you select which libraries you want to share, Windows provides a long password for the homegroup. (See Figure 3.) It’s impossible to memorize this password, which is a pain because you have to enter it on each Windows 7 PC that you want to connect to the homegroup.

You can use your own password
Figure 3. The homegroup password generated by Windows 7 is difficult to remember, but you can create a password of your own.

If you wish to change the password to something more reasonable, it’s best to do so before any other computers are connected to the homegroup. If you attempt to change the default password later, you’ll have to change the password manually on each PC on the network — blech!

To set your own password, click Finish in the password box, choose View or change homegroup settings, and select Change the password. Follow the steps listed there to enter your own password.

After the homegroup has been established, adding new Windows 7 PCs to the network is a breeze. Simply attach the Win7 computer to the network and identify the network as the “Home” variety. Windows sniffs and sees a homegroup already established, asks whether you want to share your Documents library, and prompts you to type in the homegroup’s password. Ta-da!

Now it’s time to put your homegroup to use

Homegroups are baked into every nook and cranny of Windows 7. For example, when you click Start, Documents, a homegroup list appears on the left. The same thing happens when you select Pictures, Computer, or Music. If you fire up Word 2007 and click File, Open, the homegroups are right there.

Navigating to a homegroup — or a folder in a shared library within a homegroup — is as easy as opening a folder or file on your computer. Media streaming from homegroup computers works in a flash. You can connect to printers on homegroup computers just as easily as setting up a printer on your own computer.

To make a folder available to everyone in your homegroup, simply add the folder to one of your shared libraries. If you share your Documents library, for example, add the folder to your personal Documents folder or to the PC’s Public Documents folder to allow everyone in your homegroup to read, modify, or delete items in the folder.

Sometimes you may want to share a folder with your homegroup without adding it to a shared library. For example, you might want to share your Downloads folder with everyone in the homegroup.

To do so, navigate to the folder, click it once, choose the Share with button at the top of the screen, and select either Homegroup (Read) or Homegroup (Read/Write), depending on how much you trust the other folks in your homegroup. (See Figure 4.)

Windows 7's 'share with' option
Figure 4. Sharing a folder with other PCs in your homegroup is as easy as selecting it, choosing “Share with,” and clicking one of the four options.

If you want to discontinue sharing a folder with a homegroup, navigate to the folder, click the Share with button, and choose Nobody.

More than one homegroup can exist on a single network, but things quickly get complicated. A particular computer can be part of only one homegroup at a time. You can leave one homegroup and join another, but you can’t be a member of two homegroups at once. (By the by, homegroups work great with Windows Home Server.)

The benefits of homegroups on Win7 far outweigh the quibbles. After the hassles we’ve all experienced when attempting to share files and printers on older versions of Windows, I bet you’ll find homegroups a breath of fresh air.

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies — are currently available in several languages.
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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.