With Windows 7, you can more easily share files and printers across a network via the new HomeGroups feature. HomeGroups lets you connect to files and printers with a group password, if all the PCs have Windows 7. But I'll show you how to get your Windows 7 PC to play nicely on a network that also has Macs and XP/Vista PCs.

Set Up Windows 7 to Share a Printer

Sharing a printer--click for full-size image.Windows can share a printer with other PCs on your network, so everyone in your household can connect as long as your printer and PCs are on. Here's how to set up this sharing in Windows 7.

Open Devices and Printers from the Start Menu, and double click your printer. Pick Customize your printer, and click the Sharing tab in the following window. Select the Share this printer checkbox.

Unless you're connecting a bunch of similar PCs, I recommend skipping the option to download additional printer drivers on the host system. Just take a moment to configure everything once on each client. With different combinations of 32- and 64-bit Vista, Windows 7, and XP PCs, it's more hassle than it's worth to try to plan ahead here. Approve the options and close the Properties window.

Share a Printer From Vista and XP

Setting printer name--click for full-size image.If you would rather connect your Windows 7 PC to a printer on an XP or Vista system, here's how to configure those operating systems. In Windows Vista, open the Printers control panel, and right click your printer. Click Sharing, and press Change sharing options. Now, click Continue, then Share this printer. Click OK.

It's a similar process in XP. Open the Printers and Faxes control panel, and right click your printer. Click Share this printer, and click OK.


Connect to a Shared Printer in Windows 7

Installing a network printer--click for full-size image.Here's how to use a shared printer from your Windows 7 PC, whether the printer is connected to a Windows 7, Vista, or XP computer.

In Windows 7, open Devices and Printers from the Start Menu, and pick Add a printer. Click the second option to add a network printer, and pick your printer from the list. Click Next, and wait for the printer driver to be located. If you want this printer to be the default printer, make the necessary selection, and click Finish.

Windows 7 couldn't automatically locate the printer driver for my ageing-but-strong Epson Stylus Photo R1800 on my network. If you face the same problem, manually download the driver from the printer company's website, and browse to it when prompted.

If that still doesn't work, it didn't for me, try installing the printer driver before trying to connect to your designated network printer. When I did this, Windows 7 afterwards had no problem reaching my network printer.

Use a Windows 7 Printer From XP or Vista

Printer sharing--click for full-size image.If you'd rather install a printer on the Windows 7 system, you can still connect from XP and Vista. Here's how.

In Windows XP, open the Printers and Faxes Control Panel. Choose File: Add Printer, and click Next. Click the button to add a network printer, and click Next. Click the Connect to this printer button, and type the path to the network printer.

For example, my PC with the printer is named "Sloth," and the printer is called "EPSON_R1800." My path is \\SLOTH\EPSON_R1800. If you're unsure of your path, open a new window on the Windows 7 PC, and open the Network menu on the left. Browse to your PC name, and locate the printer there to identify the PC and printer name. On the Windows XP system, click Next.

Enter your username and password for the Windows 7 PC. Leave the box for Remember my password checked if you want to automatically connect in the future. Click OK. Click Yes to the warning that appears. If the printer driver doesn't automatically download, try to manually identify or install it, as mentioned in the previous section.

Choose if you want to use this as the default printer, click Next, and press Finish. Now, when you print a document, use the Name dropdown menu to pick the network printer.

In Vista, open the Printers control panel, and double click Add Printer. Pick the second option to add a network printer, and click Next. Vista should find the printer. Select it, and click Next.

If presented with a dialogue box that says that you're missing the printer drivers, click OK, and browse to the driver files. If you're still having problems, install the printer drivers first, before trying to set up the network printer. Otherwise, choose if you want to set the new printer as your default, and click then Next and Finish.