Automatic Wireless Network Connections in Windows XP

The venerable OS's Wi-Fi logic allows for advanced network prioritization

Windows XP reached end-of-life in 2014 and no longer receives critical security or feature updates from Microsoft. We recommend that you upgrade to Windows 10 for the best and safest computing experience. We retain this content on behalf of readers precluded from upgrading.

Windows XP automatically establishes a wireless network connection to Wi-Fi network routers and access points. This feature makes it easier to connect laptops to wireless internet connections and Wi-Fi.

A Wi-Fi rounter on a table with different color Ethernet cables connected.
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Does My Computer Support Automatic Wireless Network Configuration?

Not all Windows XP computers with Wi-Fi wireless support are capable of automatic wireless configuration. To verify your Windows XP computer supports this feature, you must access its Wireless Network Connection properties:

  1. From the Start menu, open the Control Panel.

  2. In the Control Panel, select the Network Connections option if it exists. If not, select Network and Internet Connections > Network Connections.

  3. Right-click Wireless Network Connection and choose Properties.

In the Wireless Network Connection properties window, do you see a Wireless Networks tab? If not, your Wi-Fi network adapter lacks Windows Zero Configuration support and the built-in Windows XP automatic wireless configuration feature will remain unavailable to you. Replace your wireless network adapter if necessary to enable this feature.

If you see a Wireless Networks tab, select it, and then—in Windows XP SP2—select View Wireless Networks. A message may appear on the screen as follows:

Windows cannot configure this wireless connection. If you have enabled another program to configure this wireless connection, use that software.

This message appears when your wireless network adapter was installed with a software configuration utility separate from Windows XP. The Windows XP automatic configuration feature cannot be used in this situation unless the adapter's configuration utility is disabled, which is generally not advisable.

Enable and Disable Automatic Wireless Network Configuration

To enable automatic configuration, go to the Wireless Network Connection properties window, select the Wireless Networks tab, and select Use Windows to configure your wireless network settings. Automatic wireless internet and Wi-Fi network configuration will be disabled if Use Windows to configure your wireless network settings is not selected.

You must be logged in with Windows XP administrative privileges to turn on this feature.

What Are Available Networks?

The Wireless Networks tab allows you to access the set of available networks. Available networks represent those active networks currently detected by Windows XP. Some Wi-Fi networks may be active and in range, but not appear under Available networks, such as when a wireless router or access point has SSID broadcast disabled.

When your network adapter detects newly available Wi-Fi networks, you will see an alert in the lower-right corner of the screen allowing you to take action if necessary.

What Are Preferred Networks?

In the Wireless Networks tab, you can build a set of preferred networks when an automatic wireless configuration is active. This is a list of known Wi-Fi routers or access points that you want to automatically connect to in the future. Add new networks to this list by specifying the network name (SSID) and appropriate security settings of each.

The order in which preferred networks are listed is the same order that Windows XP will automatically attempt when making a wireless internet connection. You can set this order to your preference, with the limitation that all infrastructure-mode networks must appear ahead of all ad-hoc mode networks in the preferred list.

How Does Automatic Wireless Network Configuration Work?

By default, Windows XP attempts to connect to wireless networks in the following order:

  1. Available networks that are in the preferred network list (in order of listing).
  2. Preferred networks not in the available list (in order of listing).
  3. Other networks depending on which advanced settings were chosen.

In Windows XP with Service Pack 2, each network, even preferred networks, can be configured individually to bypass automatic configuration. To enable or disable automatic configuration on a per-network basis, select or unselect Connect when this network is within range within that network's Connection properties.

Windows XP periodically checks for new available networks. If it finds a new network listed higher in the preferred set that is enabled for auto-configuration, Windows XP automatically disconnects from the lesser-preferred network and re-connects to the more preferred one.

Advanced Automatic Wireless Configuration

By default, Windows XP enables its automatic wireless configuration support. Many people mistakenly assume this means your laptop will automatically connect to any wireless network it finds. That is untrue. By default, Windows XP only auto-connects to preferred networks.

The Advanced section in the Wireless Networks tab in the Wireless Network Connection properties controls the default behavior of Windows XP automatic connections. One option in the Advanced window, Automatically connect to non-preferred networks, allows Windows XP to auto-connect to any network on the available list, not just preferred ones. This option is disabled by default.

Other options under the Advanced settings control whether auto-connect applies to infrastructure mode, ad-hoc mode, or both types of networks. This option can be changed independently from the option to connect to non-preferred networks.

Is Automatic Wireless Network Configuration Safe to Use?

The Windows XP wireless network configuration system limits automatic connections by default to preferred networks. Windows XP will not automatically connect to non-preferred networks such as public hotspots, for example, unless you specifically configure it to do so.

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