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Windows 7 marked a pretty radical from a variety of outdated methods, including how network file and print sharing is handled.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 a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.