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HTG Explains: What’s the Difference Between the Windows 7 HomeGroups and XP-style Networking?

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Windows 7 rocks a new method of file and print sharing that’s a departure from the frustrating file and print sharing found in earlier versions of Windows. What is it and how can you benefit from it? Read on as we explain.

HomeGroups are a new edition to the Windows ecosystem as of Windows 7. They’re intended to (and succeed at) greatly reducing the frustration experienced by users who want to easily share files between computers as well as share printers with the entire network. Let’s take a look at the state of home networking and how it has evolved.

A Micro History of Windows File and Print Sharing

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Windows 7 marked a pretty radical from a variety of outdated methods, including how network file and print sharing is handled. If you ever had the displeasure of setting up file and print sharing on an Windows XP network you were essentially building a sharing scheme built atop the same—albeit modified and updated—framework that had existed for the task since the 1980s.

NetBIOS, a local area network communication API, was introduced in 1983 by IBM and an implementation of it was created by Microsoft in 1985. Although time-tested the API wasn’t without some frustrating shortcomings, including a tendency for computers on the network to get out of sync (one machine might see all four computers and the printer on the network, another might see three computers and no printer) and the sort of obtuseness in practical application that made it much better suited for a commercial environment with an IT staff than for a fluid home environment maintained by users which may have no particular computer expertise. From 1985 until the introduction of Windows 7 the Windows file sharing methodology was built upon this decades old framework.

The new method of sharing doesn’t abandon everything about the old Windows networking methods, however. The NetBIOS underpinnings have been removed and replaced with a new peer-to-peer style networking tool called Peer-to-Peer Graphing. This new Peer-to-Peer method makes it easy for all the computers in the HomeGroup to stay in sync with each other. The mechanism for actually sharing files has stayed the same just with some revisions and polishing; Server Message Block (SMB) file sharing runs much smoother on the new Peer-to-Peer system.

In addition to restructuring the underpinnings of the sharing system the shift to Windows 7 HomeGroups also ditches the frustrating aspects of managing your network. Unlike in Windows XP, where the choices for file sharing were limited to simple sharing (easy to set up but insecure) or permissions-based sharing (a pain to configure and manage but secure), Windows 7 HomeGroups allows you to easily link computers together with nothing more than a share password. What do you need to make it work and what does it mean for you? Let’s take a look.

What This Means for You; Windows HomeGroups in Action

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The Windows HomeGroup system is designed to make it easy for you to nearly instantly add a computer to your network and start sharing files and printers without having to muck around with extensive permissions or otherwise moonlight as a sys admin in your own house. You no longer need matching workgroups, extensive permission configuration, or any of the other things that made configuring a home network a hassle under earlier versions of Windows. Here the requirements of the HomeGroup system:

  • At least one computer running Windows 7 Premium of above—lower versions of Windows 7 can join HomeGroups they just can’t create them.
  • Your home network needs to be set as “Home” in the Network and Sharing Center.

That’s it! One computer starts the HomeGroup, the others join it, and boom, you’re networked. It’s so simple that if a friend visits your house and wants to join your HomeGroup to temporarily share files with you all he has to do is flag your local network as a home network and join with the password you give him. No swapping of workgroups, no tinkering with folder and file permissions, just nearly-instant sharing. The screenshot below was taken just moments after I added a netbook to my HomeGroup; it took little more than 20 seconds, most of which was spent double checking the password to save the hassle of retyping it.

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So what are the limitations of the HomeGroup? If you’re running and all Windows 7 household they’re not too severe. If you’re not, you’ll end up with a patch work of sharing methods.

  • The HomeGroup system is Windows 7 only. Earlier versions of Windows are completely locked out from participating in it because of it’s radical departure from the previous structure of Windows files sharing. This, unfortunately, includes Windows Home Server (WHS 2011 will resolve the incompatibility).
  • It’s an all-or-nothing system. Folders are either accessible to the whole HomeGroup or not accessible. You can’t specify that a folder is accessible only to your wife’s computer but not your son’s.
  • You can only have one HomeGroup per network. You can’t overcome the permission issue by making, for example, a Grownups and Kids HomeGroup or sub-group for house guests.

Although those are fairly significant limitations if you’re trying to privately share a folder within your home, the limits only apply to the HomeGroup. They didn’t rip the other networking tools right out of Windows. You can, if you need to, set up a regular SMB share with the old permissions system in parallel to the HomeGroup. Thus you could have a HomeGroup that shares nearly everything in the open except for content you only want to share with a specific computer or person in the house—that content could be kept in a folder shared with traditional Windows networking methods. In contrast with the huge hassle that maintaining a home network was prior to the arrival of HomeGroup it’s a very small concession to make.

Getting Started with Windows 7 HomeGroup

Windows 7 HomeGroup is an excellent choice for users who want speedy and flexible simple file and printer sharing without having to dabble about with the arcane aspects of configuring folder and user permissions (but without taking away more advanced tricks for those times you need them). HomeGroups are an excellent networking solution for people who are uninterested in learning the nuances of configuring traditional user-oriented permission-based systems or who simply need a nearly instant network for simple and secure file sharing.

Interested in getting your HomeGroup up and running right now? We’ve written several helpful guides to getting started with and managing your Windows 7 HomeGroups.


Have a good experience to share about using the Windows HomeGroup? Opted to go back to traditional and more time-intensive networking techniques? Taking it for a spin today? Let’s hear about it in the comments. Have an idea for our next How-To Geek Explains post? Send us an email at tips@howtogeek.com and we’ll see what we can do!

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/15/11

Comments (30)

  1. Yoshiyah

    Thank-You! After setting up my Desktop and laptop it always ask me to set up a HomeGroup. I have always opted out, but now will be doing this. I am running both Windows 7 Home Premium on Desktop and Laptop. Was running Starter on laptop, but recently upgraded as Starter cannot join HomeGroup.

    One Question. Can the Xbox 360 connect via the HomeGroup, or is this exempt from using it?

  2. oliver

    XBOX360 uses the windows media player sharing to get it’s music, video and picture sources. The home group sharing does not affect the XBOX or PS3 in anyway (as far as I can tell so this is a IMHO note)

    I have used xbox360 for my PC movies for 4 years and it has always used the Windows Media Player Sharing Service.

    The home sharing is more for PC/Laptop file and printer sharing.

    Hope this helps…

  3. Khai

    funny, I never found XP hard to network or share resources on… I just did it. bam, done. no trouble..

  4. drfinale

    I never could get into the whole HomeGroup thing. We have a family computer and then two laptops. I share the “Public” folder on the family computer the old-fashioned way, and then set up a mapped network drive on the other two machines. This is one of those features, like libraries, that I personally don’t find particularly useful.

  5. Bane

    Both me and my friend have windows 7 professional, and every time we LAN we can never access each others files through HomeGroup or one pc can access other shared folders but not the other way around. the only access we both have are the public documents, and sharing specfic folders does not work. The XP days where much more care free.

  6. dave

    Agree with Khai, never had issues networking under XP and since I have machines with Mac OSX and linux in my house you have given me ample reason to stay away from HomeGroup.

  7. Grump

    Always found networking setups a breeze between my Linux & XP PCs.
    Different story getting W7 to join in.

  8. Will

    It’d be nice if it actaully worked. Every time I try to set up a homegroup the computer that’s trying to connect to the group tells me it can’t, and of course the troubleshooter is uselss too.

  9. Dirty Bird

    Ive been sharing printers at home since Windows 3.x and never had any trouble until Win7 came along. Win7 is just fine if ALL your machines are Win7. I still havent found a way to share my printer between my XP boxes and my Win7 laptop as yet. Ive already invested way too much time on this. My printer is hosted by one of the boxes it is not a print server. Oh well, I think my old boxes will become Linux and be much happier, leaner and meaner, than they ever were running Windows. Way to go Microsoft! You never fail to piss me off!

  10. john3347

    My experience parallels Will’s experience. I have been able to set up “Homegroup” on a “Home” computer but neither of the client computers will recognize it. (all three computers running Windows 7 Ultimate) My XP , and one remaining Windows 2000, and Windows 7 computers, plus Windows Home Server automatically recognize every other computer and transfer files and folders without any additional configuration other that setting up the wireless WPA2 password. There is no need for a non-working “feature” as Homegroup to begin with. It is for this as well as numerous other similar reasons that Windows 7 is nothing but Vista with make-up smeared all over its face. One of the three Windows 7 computers I had has been upgraded back to Windows XP and is working much better now.

  11. Scot

    A problem that I find with the Home Group is that i have a work laptop that is Windows 7 and I have a Windows 7 desktop at home but it turns out that because my laptop is part of a domain it cannot join my home group.

  12. Rouzell

    This may sound like a broken record, but I never had issues or any difficulty with sharing in XP and I find the change to HomeGroup annoying. The other frustrating thing with networking in 7 is how often a new network connection defaults to Public, which is never the case where I am setting up a network. There’s no obvious way to get to the CP that allows you to change that network location to Work or Home and if you want to avoid or have no need for Home as in HomeGroup, you will choose Work as your location, to avoid the problem of 7 and XP in the same environment. Microsoft aggravated many people with Vista and 7 seems to be Vista-Plus in many ways. While I find 7 compelling (and I liked Vista), the change from XP to 7 is (or may be) difficult for the average or novice user. Fortunately, my business is built on providing support to that demographic. So, thanks, Microsoft, for continuing to make inane changes to your OS, networking and anything else that makes things more difficult. I do appreciate the opportunity to serve!

  13. Korbin

    Wow, I’m a networking major and can tell you that sharing stuff in XP is just as easy or even easier. Also, homegroups have been around for a long time and are in a ton of previous versions of Windows, I don’t know why this article acts like it’s brand new with Windows 7 lol.

  14. Hamburger

    I personally love the homegroup feature. I have my HTPC setup in the living room with 5 harddrives which acts as a central server with digital copies of all my dvds and music, tvseries, etc… My main computer and my laptops all connect to it and backup all the documents to the drives which are shared and stream music from it and share a itunes library which is configured on the shared drive, so every computer has the same exact library and is updated when new music is added. The main server is backed up with backblaze so if it ever goes down then everything is safe. Homegroup makes it all very very very simple for me to configure.
    Everything was setup super quick and easily thanks to homegroup. It would be possible with xp, but its so much easier with 7.

  15. hugh57

    HomeGroups doesn’t work with other operating systems, or even previous versions of Windows. That alone makes the idea of me using it a non-starter. Microsoft seems to assume that every computer that you currently own, or will buy in the future, is a Windows 7 box. For myself, I only have W7 on my laptop, other computers use XP. The hardware on the other computers is just old enough that upgrading to W7 is not an option.

    I, too, never found networking under XP all that hard.

  16. BallyIrish

    I followed How-to Geek’s instructions to share my printer which is attached to my Windows 7 Pro with my XP SP3, but no way. I have tried to get printer sharing (Canon MP600) between the two computers at least three times, but it seems Microsoft purposefully made it impossible – why? to get rid of XP. Nothing works and what I need printed from my XP I have to email to Windows 7. I mean, can you believe it? Does anyone have a solution?

  17. Mommycat

    Just got a netbook running Windows 7 starter; my PC runs XP Professional. Somehow I was able to set up some sort of file sharing (not interested in printer sharing). Still don’t know how I did it, but although I did get a notice on the netbook while setting up that with Starter 7 I couldn’t share, I continued the set up, and waddaya know, it worked anyway. Go figure.

  18. Clarence

    Haven’t noticed that Win 7 is easier to set up it’s network on. Have two systems running XP and W98se on one and XP. Vista, and Win 7 on the other. When the 3 OS system is in either Vista or WIn 7, I have a devil of a time sharing any items from them. Printers, Files, etc. Have not had this problem at all under the Win 98se or XP systems. So, I really DON’T like Win 7 ‘s (or Win Vista’s for that matter)networking setup.) This being the case, I run my two systems mostly in Win XP as that’s the OS that lets me get my work done and sees all my shared stuff!

  19. Esley Loftis

    I have an XP Home desktop and a Dell laptop Vista. I was on Bellsouth.net in Georgia. We came to
    Mississippi because my mother-in-law was in bad health. We had Bellsouth run a wire line to the
    house. We leased 3 cellphones from AT&T. I had a Liksys WRT100 Range plus witeless router. The
    dialup was too slow so I leased a DSL from Bellsouth. I received a 2wire956. Got everything working
    fine THEN AT&T or Bellsouth had my ISP switched to Yahoo. It was just done nobody asked me.
    My cousin bought her laptop and I setup a Lan. The DSL plugged into the telephone line and to
    the modem on the desktop. THere was no router in the network as the DSL took care of that. We had
    no problems until my printer quit (13 years old) > I purchased a HP Photosmart C310a e. It works
    fine off the USB cable, I can’t get it networked. I put the router back in the network. Have 5 pages of
    data on the Bellsouth 2wire956, I think I have conflicts with SSID’s. I think I need to change the
    router’s SSID. I can’t get the printer to accept the netwok key (26 alpha numeric chars) I have that
    stuff on a 4 GB flash drive. I need help and I have about 30 pages of data. If this printer was designed
    for Windows 7, I may be trying to invent the wheel. I can print via the USB. My Lan is working.
    I am open to suggestions

  20. Jonathan

    There’s one particular troubleshooting tip that you left out of this… To join a homegroup for the first time, the computer you are using to join MUST have a username/password combination in common with the machine on which the homegroup is created. For example, the account you are logged into on the computer which you created the homegroup from is username: MOM / password: MOM… If you try to join from another computer, on which the main account being used is username: DAD / password: DAD, there must ALSO be an account on this second machine for MOM/MOM. Otherwise you get a very generic error message saying “There was an error trying to join the homegroup.”

  21. grumpyone

    Having to learn the hard way over several os’s (starting with the first windows) how to work our famly computers in a happy group. My systems are riddled with the consequences of trials-and-errors. I finally got to a bit of a smile when I finally was able to get all my sharing and be able to work the other computers (albeit very clumsily) with netmeeting. I haven’t been able yet to crack the XP to VISTA for any “netmeeting” capability when suddenly my wife brings home a new win7 computer for our daughter. WOOOOOSH! I’m putting a coffepot on my desk while I start to see of there is ANY way I can universally link and co-operate between these now.

  22. laurel

    I can relate, grumpyone. Homegroups is probably a great idea but we just don’t happen to have bought five brand new Windows 7 machines all at once. And I cannot find a good way to share Windows 7 with XP and Vista. Any help here?

  23. john e

    I have been networking various computers in my small office since the 1990′s using Win 95, 98SE, and later XP Pro, I use special business softwear which has database on my fastest computer to share with client computers on workgroup LAN. Never had a problem doing this until I tried to make a new computer running Windows 7 Pro server on network. The Win 7 computer can see files on other computer but none of the computers can see files on Win 7 computer. I have set permissions on Win 7 to share everything I have changed user names and passwords on the Win XP computers to match up with Win 7 computer. I have turned off firewall on Win 7 Computer, changed” network password” on Win 7 To something easy to remenber although it didn’t seem to matter because there was never a time when the XP computers in home group asked for it. Since I have all my spare time and a few sleepless nights in the past month trying to usefully network the Windows 7 Pro computer I was really pissed when I read this article which seems to have been written by a Miicrosoft PR person.

  24. John e

    After I posted my comment above I realized that the answer to the title question of this article “What’s the Difference Between the Windows 7 HomeGroups and XP-style Networking?” The simple answer: the difference between between Windows 7 Home HomeGroups and XP-style networking is that XP-style Networking works and Windows 7 HomeGroups doesn’t, especially if network contains mixed OS, as most networks do. Does Microsoft actually believe we are going to toss out all our old computers that work, and convert all existing computers to Windows 7 in order share files? I’ll probably try another week and then return my Windows 7 in favor of another XP.

  25. BallyIrish

    Homegroups is a Windows 7 networking facility made easy by Microsoft. But I am still unable to set up a network between my XP and Windows 7. I have tried everything, and now give up!

  26. Michael

    Well, I can’t make it work. I have 4 PCs, 2 on Win 7, 64, 1 on Win 7, 32 and 1 on XP. I have tried the old way, stay away from Homegroup, but finally last night connected all 3 Win 7 PCs in a homegroup. The problem is the XP PC can get on the internet just fine but it cannot see any of the PCs in the workgroup that are now homegroup PCs and the Win 7 PCs can’t see the XP PC. I am using a newer Netgear router but I had the same problem with my Linksys. The workgroup names are the same, the homegroup name is the same, like I said I just broke down and changed to Homegroup last night. I can surf the web with the XP but my LAN doesn’t see the XP nor any of the Win 7 PCs see the XP PC, I give up.

  27. rammolo

    Please take a note that workgroup only works when computers are configured as a home network, will not work in business or public configuration

  28. Christian

    Last time I remember connecting XP boxes with Win 7 ones… I was so pissed off. I wasn’t able to connect them but after tinkering with the windows 7 I was able to share files b/w the XP and Win7 boxes.
    For I can remember is I configured the Homegroup from the Control Panel(turned off the passwords– there are 2 radio buttons of them saying that) then voila! they can share files….

    Another remedy for that is through the use of IP Address….
    What I did is Click the Start Button then type \\192.168.1.100 <—-ip of my XP box
    then a window will appear showing the shared resources of other PCs on the network….
    now from there, I used the Network Map command and assigned a Drive Letter… that's it!
    I used this method to mapped my printer from XP box to my Win 7 Box…..

    'Hope these helps!

  29. WesleyChin

    When using XP, I found networking and sharing resources to be a piece of cake……

  30. Stewart

    Oh I’m so glad to hear people with the same opinion as me. I curse W7 Homegroup – yet another layer of sharing on top of the very simple method in XP. Of course deeper down you also have the NTFS permissions. So Microsoft have complicated the whole thing by adding a 3rd system on top.

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