Hands On: A Hard Look at Windows Vista

Now that it's gold, here's an inside look at the best and the worst of Windows Vista

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Microsoft has a long, sad history of getting networking wrong.

Until Windows Vista, that is. The new operating system represents a breakthrough when it comes to Windows and networking. For the first time, it's easy to get a quick overview of your network at a glance, manage multiple wireless networks, make new network connections, set up file sharing and more.

At the center of all this is the Network and Sharing Center. It put the most important networking features into an integrated, simple-to-configure interface. Setting up file sharing, for example, was painful to do properly in Windows XP but is now a matter of a few mouse-clicks. And everything else is in easy reach as well, including connecting to a network, setting up a new network, managing your network connections, and diagnosing and repairing network problems.

For the first time in Windows, it's easy to manage your networks.
For the first time in Windows, it's easy to manage your networks.

(Click image to see larger view)

One of Windows Vista's best new networking tools is the Network Map. Click "View Full Map" from the Network and Sharing Center, and a live map is drawn of all the devices and PCs on your network. Hover over a device or click on it, and you'll get more details about that device. Hover over a gateway, for example, and you'll see its IP address and MAC address. Click a PC, and you'll see the shared network files and folders on it.

However, if you have a network with PCs that have earlier versions of Windows on it (and who among us doesn't?), you're going to run into a few bumps. Windows Vista uses the new Link Layer Topology Discovery (LLTD) protocol, which speeds up discovering and displaying network devices, as well as allowing Windows Vista to grab information about them.

Earlier versions of Windows don't include LLTD, and so you'll notice networking support for them tends to be flaky. Sometimes they'll show up on the Network Map, sometimes they won't, and they appear and disappear at random times. Microsoft said that it will release an LLTD add-on for Windows XP PCs when Windows Vista ships, so that might solve the problem.

Network Map: Vista's coolest new networking tool.
Network Map: Vista's coolest new networking tool. (Click image to see larger view)

Wireless networking

Wireless networking support has been significantly improved as well. Windows Vista is designed for a world that's increasingly wireless, and in which many people connect to multiple networks, at home, at the office and in public hot spots.

The connection screen not only lets you view all nearby wireless networks, but if you hover your mouse over one, you'll see all of the network's vital statistics, including the type of network (802.11b, 802.11g, and so on), whether security is being used, and if so, what kind.

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