One of the much trumpeted features of Windows 7 is that it will make setting up and using home networks much easier. According to Microsoft, the company used a real home as a model for the way this should work, i.e. those inside the home are usually trusted with unrestricted access to pretty much anything.
This doesn't sound like a real home to me - at least, not one with teenagers, but never mind.
HomeGroup is thus intended to allow users to easily access each other's content, such as pictures, documents and other media, and to share resources like printers. However, each user can also limit what is accessible to others, if they wish.
I tried out setting up a HomeGroup using just a pair of PCs running Windows 7 beta while connected to the same network (for test purposes, through an Ethernet switch) and it does indeed seem pretty straightforward to get the computers talking to each other.
Users can create a new HomeGroup from the Network and Sharing Center, accessible in Windows 7 via Control Panel or the View Available Networks pop-up on the taskbar.
If this is the first computer in the HomeGroup, the setup screen asks what kind of information you wish to share, and automatically generates a password for everyone else to join the group, as shown in the screenshot.
When I connected the second Windows 7 computer to the network, it automatically detected the existence of a HomeGroup, and asked if I wanted to join. This required nothing more than keying in the password, and again specifying what content I wanted to share from that computer.
Once this is accomplished, users can then see other computers in the HomeGroup and browse the contents just like accessing a network share in a traditional LAN. You also automatically get access to printers connected to any other computer within the group.
But HomeGroup really comes into its own with Windows 7's Libraries. Libraries are like a superset of a standard Windows folder; they are designed to include content from multiple sources, which might be one or more folders on your own PC, or folders from other computers as well.
For example, a photo library could collate together all pictures across the HomeGroup. I created a Library to do exactly this, including the Picture Library from both computers. Opening this Library showed all the pictures, and I could also find a picture regardless of location by typing into the search box in the Windows Start menu.
The same principal applies to other files, so users should be able to find and play music and video stored on other computers within the HomeGroup - so long as they are switched on at the time, of course.
Of course, HomeGroup doesn't solve every problem - you need to have a functioning network in the first place. But assuming your ISP left you with a functioning broadband router when it installed your internet connection, HomeGroup does look like it should greatly simplify the task of connecting computers together at home for a great many people.
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