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Tip 4: Network Browsing problems

If you've gotten this far, your problem is likely caused by Windows Network Browsing having gotten itself confused. What's Network Browsing? Let's see what Microsoft has to say:

From Description of the Microsoft Computer Browser Service (Microsoft Knowledge Base Article - 188001)

The primary function of the browser service is to provide a list of computers sharing resources in a client's domain along with a list of other domain and workgroup names across the wide-area network (WAN). This list is provided to clients that view network resources with Network Neighborhood or the NET VIEW command.

In other words, the Network Browsing function keeps track of the computers on the network and causes them to appear in Network Neighborhood / My Network Places. It's not actually required for file sharing, so it's possible to still share files and printers by bypassing this function.

To see if Network Browsing problems are what's ailing you, try the following:

Step 1: Find the IP addresses for two computers that aren't file sharing properly.

Step 2: Start > Run and type in ipaddress where ipaddress is the IP address of the other computer you're trying to reach.

If a window opens showing the shares of the desired computer, then file sharing is actually working fine, but Network Browsing isn't.

Tip! TIP: Once you have the connection made, you can create a network shortcut by right clicking on the desired share and selecting Create Shortcut. You can also map a Network Drive if that's the method you prefer.

Note that the shortcut will work only as long as that computer's IP address stays the same. So if you're going to rely on this workaround, I recommend you assign static IP addresses to all your LAN's machines.

One of the things that can go wrong is the Master Browser election process. There is only one Master Browser allowed on the network and its job is to collect all the "Hey, I'm computer X at IP address Y" announcements sent by each computer, compile them into a list, then make that list available to all computers on the network. This list is what your computer uses to populate the Network Neighborhood / My Network Places window with available computers.

You can see which computer is currently the browse master by running the nbtstat -n command on each machine. Figure 7 shows the result on the computer that is Master Browser. Your result will probably be different, but you should see your the computer's name, the Workgroup it belongs to and, most importantly the ..__MSBROWSE__. line.

Browse master

Figure 7: Browse master

Figure 8 shows what you'll see on the other computers in the workgroup - basically everything except the ..__MSBROWSE__. line.

Not the Browse master

Figure 8: Not the Browse master

Only one Master Browser is allowed per network segment and all the computers on a segment are supposed to get together and decide which one is the Master Browser. This process normally works fine as long as computers join and leave the network in a controlled way. When the Master Browser shuts down, for example, it politely announces that it's leaving the network and the other computers once again elect a Master Browser.

Problems can occur, however, when the Master Browser suddenly drops off the network. Windows crashes are one cause of an abrupt exit, but wireless networks can have plenty of less-than-graceful departures of stations due to all the wonderful things that happen in a wireless network. So you can see that if a wireless computer happens to get elected Master Browser, then you're probably in for trouble.

What happened in my case was that my wireless laptop - which get subjected to all sorts of networking mayhem as my test client - of course won the election as Master Browser at some point. This generated the dreaded one-way sharing problem that drove me nuts, until I wised up and worked around it via the ipaddress trick mentioned above. I eventually ended up doing an XP reinstall (but not a reformat and reinstall), but you may want to try something less drastic - essentially rigging the Master Browser election process, which I'll describe next.

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