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Windows 8.1, Microsoft’s update to Windows 8, went public this month. Along with new features, apps, and improvements to usability and security, 8.1 brings changes to the networking features. Though the connection process is the same as prior Windows versions, there are significant differences in how you manage and view network connection settings and status details. Whether you’re in IT or an average end user, here’s what you need to know about the changes and new features.
Connecting to networks
Connecting to a wireless network remains the same as in Windows 8: select the network icon in the system tray, choose a network, optionally select whether to set the network to automatically connect, and select Connect.
Enter network security key
Then it will prompt you to enter the network security key (or to push the WPS button on the router) if using WPA/WPA2-PSK (Personal) security. And like before, the first time you connect it asks you if you’d like to enable sharing and network discovery of the computer or device to others on the network, which again has been rephrased.
When connecting to a network with WPA/WPA2-Enterprise (802.1X) security it will prompt you for a username and password, which is now integrated into the network pane instead of on a separate pop-up dialog box. Plus there have been changes to how it prompts you for the server certificate validation. If the server certificate of the RADIUS server hasn’t already been trusted by the computer/device you’re connecting, a prompt will be shown verifying if you want to connect and allows you to view only the certificate’s thumbprint.
Editing network connection properties
In Windows 7, you could open the network list and right-click a network name to access its properties and status. In Windows 8, you could right-click a network name to access the connection properties, turn sharing on or off, forget the network, and enable or disable the new metering and data usage features.
Right click the network icon
But now in Windows 8.1, you can’t right-click the network names at all. But you still have the Network and Sharing Center, easily accessible by right-clicking the network icon in the system tray and clicking Open the Network and Sharing Center.
Access the network connection
On the Network and Sharing Center you can access the network connection status by clicking the connection’s name to bring up the network connection status dialog. Then, click the Wireless Properties button to access or change the network connection and security settings. Or click the Properties button to access or change the adapter properties. To manage the new network metering and data usage features and to enable/disable sharing for a network you must bring up the PC Settings app in Windows 8.1: open the Settings charm (slide along right of screen or press Win + I), click Change PC Settings, click Network, and select the network name.
Changing network priorities and deleting networks
Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft removed the Manage wireless networks link from the Network and Sharing Center. Instead the OS automatically manages the priority of wireless networks for you. For instance, when you connect to a new network and it’s set to auto-connect, Windows places it at the top of the priority list. However, you still have some control over the network priorities on the Wireless Network Properties dialog. For each network profile you can still identify whether it should automatically connect when within range and if Windows should look for and connect to other (better) networks while connected.
Deleting a wireless network profile
In Windows 8, you could still delete a network profile by right-clicking its name on the network list and selecting Forget this network. But in Windows 8.1 you can’t even right-click on the network names anymore. Furthermore, there’s no way to delete or forget network profiles via the GUI; you must use the CLI. Starting with Windows 8.1, to delete wireless network profiles or to make changes to network profiles when that particular network isn’t within range you must use the Netsh commands. To get started open a PowerShell or Command Prompt window and use the following examples:
Configuring Advanced Sharing and HomeGroup settings
In Windows 8, Microsoft added HomeGroup settings to the PC Settings app, which remain in Windows 8.1 but are under the Network section now. In the desktop environment you still have the HomeGroup and Advanced Sharing settings, accessible via the Control Panel or the Network and Sharing Center, with very little differences between Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.
Connecting to a Workplace
Among the many enhancements in Windows 8.1 are some features to help with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) environments. Workplace Join offers an easier way for users to connect their PCs and mobile devices to the domain network. Plus it gives IT admins more granular control over the corporate resources users have access to while giving them some device management/enforcement control.
Work Folders is another feature debuting in Windows 8.1. Basically it’s a company-hosted version of a cloud storage service like SkyDrive or DropBox. It adds native syncing of user files on their PCs and mobile devices to their storage on the corporate network. This provides a backup of their files in case of loss/theft and lets them access files via other devices. This syncing can be done with or without the devices being connected to the domain or via Workplace Join. And IT admins have the ability to remotely wipe these synced files, for instance if an employee loses the device or leaves the company.
How to use metered connections and track data usage
In Windows 8, Microsoft introduced the data metering and usage features to help you reduce and track data usage when on wireless connections that have data caps, like 4G and other mobile broadband connections. You could easily enable or disable metering and data usage tracking by right-clicking a network on the list. However, in Windows 8.1 you can’t right-click networks and must configure these via the PC Settings app: open the Settings charm (slide along right of screen or press Win + I), select Change PC Settings, select Network, and select the network name.
Viewing data usage
When a network is set to show data usage you’ll see the estimated usage (in MBs or GBs) on the network list after you select that particular network name. And with the improved Task Manager Microsoft introduced in Windows 8, you can view the estimated data usage of particular applications as well. When a network is set as a metered connection it can limit some non-critical downloads and Internet activity to help reduce data usage. For instance when enabled Windows Update won’t download updates (except for critical security patches) and third-party apps won’t download or transfer unnecessary data either.
Create a Wi-Fi Hotspot via Mobile Broadband Tethering
One major addition is the ability to enable wireless Internet sharing of mobile broadband (3G/4G) connections. Similar to the tethering or Wi-Fi hotspot functionality of some smartphones and tablets, you can enable it so other Wi-Fi devices can connect to your Windows 8.1 computer or device to receive Internet access.
New place for proxy server settings
In previous versions of Windows, you changed proxy settings via the Connections tab of Internet Explorer’s Internet Options dialog. This still exists in Windows 8.1, but now proxy settings are also available in the Network section of the PC Settings app as well. Open the Settings charm (slide along right of screen or press Win + I), select Change PC Settings, select Network, and select Proxy. It includes most of the same automatic and manual proxy settings found in the Internet Options dialog, with the exception of being able to set different proxy addresses for particular protocols.
Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer—keep up with his writings on Facebook. He’s also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, and On Spot Techs, a…
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