For the average person, networking and security are two of the biggest causes of OS-related headaches, with so many settings, devices, alerts and threats to stay on top of. With Windows 7, Microsoft attempts a more useful approach to family networking with HomeGroup. It expands its security options, too, but does it with more concern for user-friendliness than during Vista development.
Microsoft has tried simplifying its networking solutions overall in Windows 7, added more home-user features, and redesigned certain basic networking interfaces so that they actually kinda make sense.
Connecting to new wireless networks is something that has been made significantly easier in Windows 7. In the taskbar's notifications tray, there is a wireless signal icon just like in past Windows versions. But clicking on it now brings up a list of available networks around you. You can connect to an unsecure network, or enter in your security code on a secure network and hit the Connect button. Disconnecting is just as easy.
HomeGroup is intended as an easy way for multiple computers on the same network to share their files, folders and smart content clusters known as libraries. Properly implemented, HomeGroup could be a step closer to brainless networking, and it makes sense for families.
If you access the HomeGroup tab in the Control Panel, you will be presented with the option (in theory) to create a new homegroup or join a currently existing homegroup. After creating a new homegroup, Windows asks you what libraries you want to share, and gives you a password for other computers on the network who want to join your homegroup. When the new PCs jump on the network, they get prompted to join the homegroup, and are asked for the password.
The strange thing is, other devices will still show up under the general network even if they are not necessarily connected to your homegroup. So while the tool does seem to simplify things, it may not be the last word when it comes to security. We experienced some hiccups in our trials of HomeGroup in Win 7 beta, so we have to see it in the final release to really identify whether it's going to work as billed or not.
[More HomeGroup details and images]
Windows 7 ramps up security options. Vista users will still identify the mostly painless Windows Firewall and Windows Defender mainstays, but Microsoft threw in some new security features—native biometric support and enhanced BitLocker protection, for example—and by letting people pick their level of User Account Control alert messages, Windows 7 aims for a safe but more user-friendly experience. However, by attempting to be more user-friendly, they may have inadvertently compromised some security.
User Account Control (UAC) Settings
Many complained in Windows Vista that User Account Control settings was an annoying feature, especially for people who were used to Administrator status and Administrator-type work. It was a necessary but evil feature. In Windows 7, Microsoft now gives you four different options for User Account Control, which you can access in the Control Panel. You can set the alerts to alert you when programs and you make a change, when only programs make a change, when only programs make a change but never dim the screen, or to never alert you at all. On the user end, it has become more convenient but seems to have compromised in security, since the Windows community has become recently aware that the new UAC is open to malicious scripts. It'd just be a shame to go back to constant UAC alerts in the name of security.
Previously, you could access most of your security configurations in the Security Center. In Windows 7, everything from security to maintenance has been corralled into the new Action Center. It's accessible from the notification tray on your taskbar, or from the Control Panel. Here you can manage your network firewall, virus and spyware protection, UAC settings and more, along with basic troubleshooting and recovery. By being able to see everything in one place, Microsoft made it easier to identify potential problems at once. It may sound like your local news channel's 5 o'clock team of do-gooders, but this Action Center is certainly an improvement, and a better way to reach users than previous "centers," like Vista's Welcome Center.
Windows 7 comes with in-built support for biometric devices. In the Control Panel, you can set this feature to be turned off or turned on, and you can register fingerprints to act as your log-in password for Windows and other programs—so long as your drivers are working. In beta testing, Windows 7 didn't recognize my laptop's biometric scanner, even after I installed the proper drivers for it. Assuming you've got it working, Internet Explorer gives you the option of logging into sites with a registered fingerprint. This security feature is useful when logging into sites that require sensitive data, such as your bank, especially if you're afraid someone is snooping on you with a keystroke-logger.
BitLocker Drive Encryption
Windows 7 has revamped BitLocker to make it easier to encrypt hard drives. In Vista, BitLocker required you to set up a partition. Now, the BitLocker partition has already been set up. In addition, there is added support for encrypting removable drives such as flash drives. (Yes, they're calling it "BitLocker To Go.") Even if encrypting your desktop drives doesn't make much sense, it makes oodles of sense to lock down easily stolen portable devices such as your laptop and your USB drive. The encrypting process overall also has been simplified, which is great for people who aren't as familiar with BitLocker and general encryption. As was the case with Vista, BitLocker will only be available to Enterprise and Ultimate users.