Friday, January 15, 2010

Windows 7 Cool New Features – Part 5

Note: This post is part of a series. Please feel free to read the others first:

  1. Snap!, Shake, Jump Lists, and Live Taskbar
  2. Pinning, Windows Search, and Aero Flip 3D
  3. Desktop Gadgets, Aero Peek, and Libraries
  4. Parental Controls, Media Center, and Windows Live
Today we’re back to features that are exclusive to Windows 7. These features help make maintaining all of the computers and devices in your home a breeze.

Homegroup

File sharing has always been a piece of cake if you are working on a domain. But there are two major problems with this: 1) you have to be running a Professional or better version of Windows (be it XP, Vista, or 7), and 2) you need to have a server (or at least a PC or virtual PC running the server operating system) to run the domain. For the rest of there has always been File and Printer sharing. And if you have ever tried to get File and Printer sharing to work between even just different SKUs of Windows, then you are well aware of the headache of trying to get all the permissions just right. I personally have never been able to get Windows XP Professional to be able to access files on a Windows XP Home computer correctly.
This is where Homegroup comes in. It makes it very simple for different versions of Windows to share files and printers on a home network. All you have to do is create a Homegroup on one of your computers. Windows will then give you a short ( ten character) password. Enter this password on your other computers to join the Homegroup and your done. Now you have access to all of the files in your Libraries and any printers on your network. If you make sure that you have the same account with the same password on all of your computers, it is even easier: Homegroup will automatically try to supply the username that you are currently logged in as, along with your password. Doing it this way, you won’t even be prompted to give your username and password for the computer you are trying to access.
Now Homegroup does have a few issues that will hopefully be alleviated with time. First, you can only create a Homegroup in the Home Premium and higher SKUs. Starter and Home Basic can join a Homegroup, but they cannot create one. Second, it currently only works for Windows 7, but it does just work for all SKUs of 7. I currently run both a Home Premium and an Ultimate on the same network with Homegroup and it took only two minutes to set up. Hopefully Microsoft will make hotfixes available to set up Homegroup under Vista and XP.

Device Stage

Device Stage does for your computer’s hardware what Homegroup does for your network. It gives you a nice clean easy to use interface for your devices and printer. It all starts with the new Devices and Printers folder:
Devices and Printers
This folder gives you access to all of the major hardware connected to your PC. As you can see from the shot above, I can access my monitor, keyboard, mouse, even my USB wireless adapter. I also have all of the printers installed on my system. Now the first difference from the standard Device Manager and the older Printers and Faxes folder that you will probably notice is the nice pictures displayed for each device. This neat feature is actually very customizable, because vendors can supply their own icons for their devices. This means that you can actual spot the hardware you are interested in much faster since you can just look for the device that looks like your hardware. In the example above, you can easily tell the difference between the Windows Fax and my all-in-one printer. That is something that was much more difficult with the old Printers and Faxes folder.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. You’ll notice that I do have an all-in-one printer. In previous versions of Windows, the only difference between having an all-in-one printer and having a separate printer, scanner, copier, and fax was how much desk space it ate up. Not anymore thanks to Device Stage. If we simply double click on the printer1 in the Device and Printers folder it will bring you to the Device Stage for the printer:
Device Stage 
Not all devices have a Device Stage available, but for those that do, you will notice how easy it is to get to all of the features of your hardware. In the screen shot above, you can see that I can change both the printer and scanner settings, check the print queue, scan a photo, or even order supplies all from the comfort of a single screen.  In addition, vendors have the ability to customize the Device Stage, so you may see custom status information or menu options tailored specifically to your device. In the shot above, HP has added the Solution Center, HP Total Care, and Snapfish links to my printer’s Device Stage. Other devices will have different options: an MP3 player may have options for syncing you music files or a digital camera may allow you to import your photos.

Play To

We’ve seen that it is really easy to add computers to your network with Homegroup, and it is easy to add and manage devices on your computer with Device Stage. Now we’ll look at a really nice feature of Windows Media Player 12 that works with other Windows 7 computers on your network or Windows 7 compatible media devices. Play To allows you to stream content from Windows Media Player to other computers or devices on your network. It is as simple as:
  1. Enable media streaming on your computer (in Media Player, go to Stream->Turn on home media streaming…)
  2. Set the remote computer or device to allow media to be streamed to it (for Media player, just go to Stream->Allow remote control of my player…)
  3. Put some songs in your playlist
  4. Click Play To and select the device you want to stream to.
It is that simple. Now you can stream your music to other computers and devices in your house. Microsoft even has a list of approved digital media receivers that can stream media in this fashion.

Conclusion

As you can see, Windows 7 comes with a number of great features to make connecting all of your computers and other devices a snap. And this barely even scratches the surface. I think I'll close up this series here, but I am open to resuming it later. If you would like me to talk about any other features you have heard about and find interesting, or if you would like me to go more in depth into one of the ones I've already covered, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a message. Until next time, happy computing!

1 Device Stage can also open when you first plug in a USB device.

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