Using Wireless Networks in Windows 8

by [Published on 14 June 2012 / Last Updated on 14 June 2012]

In this article the author discusses some of the network-related interface, feature, and functionality changes in Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

Introduction

In addition to the new Metro Start screen, you'll find some new, enhanced, and even removed networking features in Windows 8. Here I'll show you some of these network-related interface, feature, and functionality changes. Although this is based on the Consumer Preview of Windows 8, it should be close to what we’ll see in the final release.

Network List and the Network and Sharing Center

As soon as you click (or tap when using a touch screen) on the Windows network icon in the system tray you'll notice a difference from Windows 7 and earlier versions. Instead of the network list popping up from the system tray, a Metro Style pane or bar (see Figure 1) will slide out from the right side of Windows 8 and is much larger; about the same width but the height runs the entire screen.


Figure 1

You can also access the network list when using the new Metro Start screen: slide your cursor (or finger) from the bottom right corner up and then select the Settings button. Then on the Metro style bar, select the network icon.

On the top of the network list you'll find a switch to turn the new Airplane Mode on and off. Like offered on many mobile devices already, when the Airplane Mode is enabled all wireless communication on the computer is disabled. Of course this will be more useful on Windows 8 laptops and tablets than on traditional PCs.

Under the Airplane mode option you'll find a separated list of any detected mobile broadband (if you have built-in or added 3G or 4G capability) and Wi-Fi networks. Similar to Windows 7, to connect to a network you click (or tap) on a network name (and you can uncheck the Connect Automatically option if you don't want it to automatically connect in the future) and then click (or tap) the Connect button, as Figure 2 shows.


Figure 2

And when selecting a mobile broadband network you'll also see a Roam Automatically option you can enable before connecting if you prefer to do so.

The first time you connect to a particular Wi-Fi network, you'll also receive a prompt (see Figure 3) asking if you'd like to enable sharing for the network.


Figure 3

This is similar to the prompt in Windows Vista and 7 asking you what type of network (Public, Home, or Work) you're connecting to so it could determine if sharing should be enable. But Windows 8 takes a direct approach and sets this network type for you based on if you want to share or not: if you choose to share it sets it as a Private network or if you choose not to share it sets it as a Public network.

On this new network list you won't find a shortcut to open the Network and Sharing Center like in Windows Vista and 7, but you can still right-click (or tap and hold) the network icon in the system tray to open it or navigate through the Control Panel. Once you open the Network and Sharing Center you'll find it's been streamlined a bit in Windows 8, as Figure 4 shows.


Figure 4

One of the biggest changes is that the Manage Wireless Networks shortcut is missing from the left side of the window. This is because Windows doesn't allow you to manually prioritize your Wi-Fi networks, but automatically does this for you based upon your connection behaviors.

You might also notice on the Network and Sharing Center that you can't click (or tap) the network type (Private or Public) to change it like you could in Windows Vista and 7. But you can still change it, for instance if you want to enable sharing: click (or tap) the network icon in the system tray, right-click (or tap and hold) the network name, and select Turn Sharing On or Off, as Figure 5 shows.


Figure 5

You'll then see the same prompt that's shown after connecting to a Wi-Fi network for the first time (from Figure 3), asking about whether you want to share or not.

Data Usage Tracking and Metering

To help you gauge the amount of data usage on networks, Windows 8 includes a new data usage tracking and metering feature. This is especially useful when using mobile broadband networks, as your service likely has a limit to the amount of data you can use before you're charged overage fees or the speed is throttled, or maybe you're even on a pay-as-you-go plan that charges per usage.

By default, Windows 8 tracks the amount of data you transfer over Wi-Fi and mobile broadband networks. The running total (in MBs or GBs) and the time or day since it's been tracked is displayed when you click (or tap) on a network name from the new network list, as shown back in Figure 2.

You can also set particular networks as a metered connection, which will then disable Windows Update from downloading updates (except for critical security patches) and possibly disable or reduce data usage from other Microsoft and non-Microsoft applications as well.

You can set a mobile broadband or Wi-Fi network as a metered connection by right-clicking (or tapping and holding) the network name on the new network list and selecting Set as Metered Connection, as Figure 6 shows.


Figure 6

When using the Task Manager in Windows 8 you'll also find additional data usage tracking. You can view current network usage among running processes (see Figure 7) and view a history of usage (see Figure 8) as well.


Figure 7


Figure 8

It also displays detailed performance stats of both Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections, as Figure 9 shows.


Figure 9

Creating Ad Hoc Networks

If you're a fan of wireless ad hoc (computer-to-computer) networks, you might be surprised that Microsoft removed the ability to create them in Windows 8, although it still supports connecting to them. However, if your wireless adapter offers a configuration utility you can likely still create ad hoc networks within Windows 8. If a separate wireless utility isn't already installed, search the support/downloads section of the vendor's website to double-check.

Instead of an ad hoc network you might also consider creating a wireless hosted network, a feature that debuted with Windows 7 and I've already discussed how to use in a previous article. Basically the wireless hosted network creates a software-based mini wireless router and allows you to share an Internet connection to those that connect to your Wi-Fi signal. But they don’t by default support file sharing. If that's required, look into possibly using Wi-Fi Direct, if supported by your devices/computers.

New EAP Types

Windows 8 also adds support for more Wi-Fi authentication types, including WISPr (Wireless Internet Services Provider roaming) and EAP-SIM/AKA/AKA Prime (SIM-based authentication), to help make connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots quicker and easier. Also included is EAP-TTLS, so if you use (or want to use) this protocol for 802.1X authentication you don’t have to use a third-party supplicant/client.

Summary

As we’ve seen, there have been some interface changes in Windows 8, especially to the network list where you’ll also notice the new Airplane mode and data usage tracking and metering features. When in the Network and Sharing Center you might also notice the shortcut missing to manage the wireless networks, as Windows will now prioritize them for you.

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