Vista Wireless Connections – The Easy Way

Connecting to wireless networks can sometimes be frustrating as wireless networking connects over a medium that can neither be seen nor touched. There are also many points at which the connection can fail and some of these are not under the users’ control.

The wireless medium is also by nature (radio communications) a very misunderstood technology. In this “how-to” I will describe installing, using, and troubleshooting wireless (WiFi) connectivity on a Microsoft Windows Vista operating system.

Note that Vista comes in five different versions and there may be slight differences such as wording, setting locations, or functionality within each version.

Having a good basic knowledge of how wireless networking technology works will assist users and technicians greatly, especially in the troubleshooting area. There are many web resources which describe wireless technology and a quick read to gain a basic knowledge of the terms and technology is highly recommended. Simply search 802.11 or WiFi which are the wireless standard and the wireless branding term, respectively.

Wireless Configuration Options

To connect to a wireless network you obviously require a wireless network adapter, which is simply nothing more than a network adapter with a wireless component.

To have a better understanding of wireless networking always treat the wireless component as completely separate from the networking component; just as you would treat the wires and connectors separately from the network settings in a wired network environment. Vista offers three methods of configuring or connecting to wireless networks.

  • There is the traditional, but somewhat updated wireless network connections dialogue box called Connect to a Network, which is basically a redesign of the XP SP2 version.
  • Administrators can configure wireless connections via the Wireless Network (IEEE 802.11) Policies extension in Active Directory group policy.
  • Advanced users can use the command line: netsh wlan, followed by the command.

In this article I will explore the first, traditional method of connecting to a wireless network.

Connect to a Network Dialogue Box

You can access the Connect to a Network dialogue box via several methods. The easiest is to simply:

  • Click the Start button.
  • Then the Connect To menu. The dialogue box will appear with a list of available wireless networks.

A second option is to:

  • Click Start on the Taskbar.
  • Click on Control Panel.
  • Then click on Network and Internet.
  • Then select Network and Sharing Center.
  • Finally select Connect to a Network.

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The show button allows you to only show wireless networks, but make sure it is not set to show only dial-up or VPN networks as this may trick you into thinking there are no available wireless networks. Each available broadcast enabled wireless network is displayed with the SSID (service set identifier), security status, and bar type signal strength.

New to Vista is the display of non-broadcast enabled wireless networks, which will appear in the list with unnamed network appearing under the network name. The list of available networks can also be restricted, by the type of adapter or mode setting of the adapter (b,g,a or n), the network type settings applied to the adapter, ad-hoc or infrastructure modes, and possibly by allowed network restrictions configured through group policies.

To connect to a wireless network simply double click the network name or click to highlight the name then click the connect button at the bottom right of the dialogue box. If you are connecting to a non-broadcast enabled network you will be prompted to manually enter the name of the network.

Wireless Security Key or Phrase

If the network you are connecting to is a secure network you will be prompted to enter a security key or pass phrase. You must have prior knowledge of the security key as it is set by the configuration of the access point.

Vista also allows you to use a USB memory stick that has been pre-programmed with the security key. There is also a checkbox that allows you to display the security key or pass phrase in plain text.

This can be helpful when entering the key or phrase, but should be immediately unselected when finished entering the key as it present a security risk.

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Saving Wireless Network Profiles

Once you have successfully connected to a wireless network you will be presented with two checkbox options. The “Save this Network” option allows you to add the network to the preferred networks list. The next time you want to connect to the wireless network all the settings will be available and will not have to be entered again.

The other option is the “Start this Connection Automatically” which provides an automatic connection to the network whenever it is in range and is the first available preferred network in the list.

The preferred network list is found in the “Manage Wireless Networks” dialogue box. Whenever you connect to a wireless network or manually configure a wireless network connection you will have the option of saving the network settings.

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In this dialogue box you have the ability to save and manage all the wireless networks that you may need to access at work, home or when travelling. Networks can be sorted with the top of the list being the most preferred and the bottom being the least preferred.

To change the order of the list simply highlight a network then click the move down arrow. You can remove networks you no longer access or add a network using the add/remove buttons.

The bottom of the dialogue box displays the settings and properties of the currently selected network. The list is also specific to each wireless adapter so it is possible to have multiple adapters of different 802.11 protocols with a preferred network list for each.

Wireless Security

Although Vista makes managing wireless networks much more convenient than in previous versions of Windows, there is an inherent wireless networks security risk that can expose a user’s computer and/or network.

Always manage your wireless connections with this in mind. Remove unused networks from your preferred network list, disable adapters when not in use, and always take advantage of the security features that are available.

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