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Windows 10 Networking Essentials

Before you can connect to the internet or a local area network, your Windows 10 device needs a network adapter, properly installed with working drivers.

Since the release of Windows 7, Microsoft's hardware certification requirements have mandated that every desktop PC, laptop, all-in-one, and portable device include a certified Ethernet or Wi-Fi adapter. Some portable devices also include modems that connect to mobile broadband networks, and Bluetooth adapters support limited types of direct connections between PCs.

You'll typically find wired Ethernet adapters in desktop PCs and all-in-ones, where a permanent wired network connection is appropriate. These adapters can be integrated into the motherboard or installed in an expansion slot and accept RJ45 plugs at either end of shielded network cables. (Most such devices also include a wireless network adapter.)

Most modern wired adapters support the Gigabit Ethernet standard, which allows data transfers at up to 1 gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second. (Older devices might be limited to the Fast Ethernet standard, which transfers data at 100 megabits per second.) In an office or a home that is wired for Ethernet, you can plug your network adapter into a wall jack that connects to a router, hub, or switch at a central location called a patch panel. In a home or an office without structured wiring, you need to plug directly into a network device.

Connect to a wired network using a USB port

If you crave the consistent connection speed and reliability of a wired network but have a portable PC or mobile device that lacks a built-in Ethernet connection, consider investing in a USB network adapter. A USB 2.0 port will support Fast Ethernet speeds, whereas a modern device with a USB 3.0 or USB Type-C port should be capable of Gigabit Ethernet speeds. Some network docking stations and USB hubs include an Ethernet adapter; this option allows you to use a single USB connection for instant access to a wired network and other expansion devices while you're at your desk, and use Wi-Fi when you're on the go.

In recent years, wireless networking technology has enjoyed an explosion in popularity. Wireless access points are a standard feature in most home routers and cable modems, and Wi-Fi connections are practically ubiquitous. You can connect to Wi-Fi, often for free, in hotels, trains, buses, ferries, airplanes, and even public parks in addition to the more traditional hotspot locations such as cafés and libraries.

All laptops and mobile devices designed for Windows 10 include a Wi-Fi adapter, which consists of a transceiver and an antenna capable of communicating with a wireless access point. Wireless adapters are also increasingly common in desktop and all-in-one computer designs, allowing them to be used in homes and offices where it is impractical or physically impossible to run network cables.

Ethernet and Wi-Fi are the dominant networking technologies in homes and offices. Alternatives include phone-line networks, which plug into telephone jacks in older homes, and powerline technology, which communicates using adapters that plug into the same AC receptacles you use for power. The availability of inexpensive wireless network gear has relegated phone-line and power-line technologies to niche status; they're most attractive in older homes and offices, where adding network cable is impractical, and wireless networks are unreliable because of distance, building materials, or interference. (A hybrid approach, useful in some environments, allows you to plug a Wi-Fi extender into an existing power line to increase signal strength in a remote location.)

You don't need to rely exclusively on one type of network. If your cable modem includes a router and a wireless access point, you can plug network cables into it and use its wireless signal for mobile devices or for computers located in areas where a network jack isn't available.

Windows 10 detects and configures network hardware automatically, installing drivers from its built-in collection. A wired internet connection should be detected automatically; you're prompted to enter the access key for a wireless connection during the setup process.

In this chapter, we assume you have an always-on broadband connection in your home or office or that you're connecting to the internet through a public or private Wi-Fi connection with internet access. Although Windows 10 supports dial-up connections, we do not cover this option.

Checking the status of your network

As we noted earlier, most network connections in Windows 10 should configure themselves automatically during setup. Tools included with Windows 10 allow you to inspect the status of the current connection and either make changes or troubleshoot problems.

The most easily accessible network tool is the status icon that appears by default in the notification area at the right side of the taskbar. Its icon indicates the current network type (wired or wireless) and the status of the network. Click that icon to display the network flyout, which presents options relevant to your type of network connection.

A portable computer with no physical Ethernet adapter sometimes shows the icon for a wired connection rather than wireless. That can occur when you have a virtual network adapter set up for virtual machines as well as when you have a USB Ethernet adapter.

The network flyout for a laptop with a wired Ethernet adapter, connected through a docking station, and a connected Wi-Fi adapter. Both networks appear to be operating properly. (A status of Limited, rather than Connected, would indicate problems with the network's ability to connect to the internet.)

The network icon in the notification area shown here indicates that the wired connection is the primary connection. The flyout above shows that the system also has a secured Wi-Fi connection.

Every available network is shown on this list, including wired connections and wireless access points that are broadcasting their names. The icon for each available wireless connection indicates its signal strength, with the list ranked in descending order by signal strength.

The three buttons visible at the bottom of the network flyout are available on any device that has a Wi-Fi adapter. Click or tap Wi-Fi to temporarily disable wireless connections. Doing so changes the network flyout. By default, Wi-Fi remains disabled until you manually tap the Wi-Fi button again. If you want your Wi-Fi holiday to be temporary, select an alternative option from the Turn Wi-Fi Back On list; you can choose 1 Hour, 4 Hours, or 1 Day.

Click the Wi-Fi button to turn the wireless adapter off or back on. By default, you have to do so manually, or you can set a timer under the Turn Wi-Fi Back On menu.

The option to disable Wi-Fi temporarily comes in handy when you're traveling and have access only to a weak wireless signal (which might drain your PC's battery as it repeatedly tries to make a connection), or a paid Wi-Fi option that you've decided is too expensive. Setting a timer allows you to reconnect without having to remember to turn Wi-Fi back on manually.

Clicking or tapping Airplane Mode shuts down all wireless communications, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular, GPS, and near field communication (NFC). (You can selectively enable wireless devices by opening Settings → Network & Internet → Airplane Mode.) The third button, available on any device with a Wi-Fi adapter, activates the system as a mobile hotspot.

A red X or yellow triangle over the network icon means your connection is not working properly. The yellow triangle is Windows 10's way of warning that something's wrong with the connection; a red X usually indicates a more serious problem with the adapter.

Network management tools

As with so many other parts of Windows 10, the knobs and dials and switches that control networking have steadily migrated from the old Control Panel to a home in the modern Settings app. You can find every network setting you need by going to Settings → Network & Internet, where you'll see the clearly organized Status page. (If you prefer the oldstyle interface, click the Network And Sharing Center link near the bottom of that page.)

For slightly faster access to network settings, click the network icon in the notification area, right-click the Network icon, and then click Network & Internet Settings.

The move to the modern Settings app hasn't removed every trace of the old-style Control Panel, however. Clicking Change Adapter Options, for example, leads to the not-so-modern dialog box. As we explain in the next section, you'll need to visit this page to adjust TCP/IP configuration settings.

We'll get into the details of the other options on this page in the remainder of this tutorial.

Network adapters that begin with vEthernet are virtual adapters created when you create a virtual switch with Hyper-V. If you've enabled the Application Guard feature in Microsoft Edge (which is also based on Hyper-V virtualization), you'll see an additional virtual adapter named vEthernet (Hvsilcs). Various diagnostic tools will show other virtual adapters used for specialized functions, such as W-Fi Direct connections. In general, we recommend that you avoid trying to manage these adapters manually.

TCP/IP configuration

Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) is the default communications protocol of the internet and for modern local area networks; in Windows 10, it's installed and configured automatically and cannot be removed. Most of the time, your TCP/IP connection should just work, without requiring any manual configuration.

Networks that use the TCP/IP protocol rely on IP addresses to route packets of data from point to point. On a TCP/IP network, every computer has a unique IP address for each protocol (that is, TCP/IPv4 and TCP/IPv6) in use on each network adapter. An IPv4 address is a 32-bit number that is normally expressed as four 8-bit numbers (each one represented in decimal format by a number from 0 through 255) separated by periods. A 128-bit IPv6 address is usually shown as eight 16-bit numbers (each one represented in hexadecimal format) separated by colons. In addition to the IP address, each computer's TCP/IP configuration has the following additional settings:

  • A subnet mask, which tells the network how to distinguish between IP addresses that are part of the same network and those that belong to other networks.
  • A default gateway, which is a computer that routes packets intended for addresses outside the local network.
  • One or more Domain Name System (DNS) servers, which are computers that translate domain names (such as www.microsoft.com) into IP addresses.
[Next...IPv6 and Windows 10]