Simple questions: What is the IP Address and how is it changed in Windows?

IP addresses stand at the very core of computer networking. It is not an easy concept to understand in its entirety, especially if you don't have a technical background. However, with a bit of help, anybody can understand the basics of IP addresses, what they do and why they are useful. Read on to get into more detail and also learn how to change the IP address in Windows, when you need to.

What is the IP Address and how does it work?

I'm going to try give you a simple analogy of an IP address using an example from real life:

Let's say you want to send a letter to your grandmother. You have finished writing the message and you want to send it. But first, you need to know her address: street name, number and zip code. Otherwise, your letter will not get to her.

Now, think of an IP address as the address of a computer or network device inside a network. It is the unique identifier of a network device, that is used to establish communication, send and receive data to other computers or devices located either in the same network or on the Internet.

At the moment of writing this article, there are two important standards for IP addresses:

  • IP version 4 (IPv4) - the most used standard at the time this article was written. An IPv4 address is made out of four numbers separated by dots. Each of these four numbers contains one to three digits and each of them can range from 0 to 255. For example, an IPv4 address could look like this: 89.44.0.241. IPv4 is being phased out because the world is running out of possible combinations for IP addresses. To give you an idea of how many devices are connected to the internet around the world, bear in mind the fact that IPv4 can generate 2^32 (4.294.967.296) addresses. And yes, we are running out of them. Therefore, in order to add more network devices, we need to switch to IPv6 because it allows for a lot more addresses.
  • IP version 6 (IPv6) - a new standard that is not yet widely implemented, but will be once all the IPv4 addresses run out. IPv6 addresses are made up of eight digit groups separated by colons. Unlike the IPv4 addresses, these can also contain letters from a to f , so an IPv6 address could very well look like this: 1203:acdb:0020:3461:0000:9425:3547:8123. As a comparison to IPv4, this standard can manage 2^128 addresses. The maximum number of addresses is a huge number with 39 digits and that should satisfy our needs for IP addresses for the next couple of decades.

An IP address can be either static or dynamic. A static IP address is one that you need to configure yourself through the Windows network settings. A dynamic address is assigned by the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), which is a service that runs on dedicated servers in your network or on special network hardware, such as routers.

Dynamic addresses are the most used, since static addresses can cause network problems if used in a careless manner. Also, they are harder to manage as they require manual intervention in order to be set.

In a typical home network or a small business network, IP addresses are assigned and managed automatically by the router.

How to change the IP Address (IPv4) in Windows

Depending on your network configuration, you might need to change the IP address of your computer or device. Fortunately, the process is not too difficult:

First, you need to open the Network and Sharing Center window. If you don't know how to do this, read our dedicated article to learn more: What is the Network and Sharing Center in Windows?. The short path to it is: “Control Panel -> Network and Internet -> Network and Sharing Center”.

Once the Network and Sharing Center opens, you can see information about your active network connections, set up new connections, change network adapter settings or troubleshoot problems.

Next, click or tap the “Change adapter settings” link on the left hand side of the window.

You can now see all of the network interfaces available on your computer or device, including virtual connections or Bluetooth network devices.

One some Windows devices you will only see a network interface because only one is available.

Press and hold or r ight click the network adapter for which you want to change the IP address and press Properties.

The Properties window gives you information about the networking protocols used by the current network connection and allows you to install, uninstall or modify them. To change the IP address, scroll through the available items in the list and double click the Internet Protocol Version 4 (TCP/IPv4) item. Alternately, you can click or tap on it and then on the Properties button.

The Internet Protocol Version 4 (TCP/IPv4) Properties window contains a General tab where you can set the IP address to either be obtained automatically or configure it manually. To configure it manually, check the option “Use the following IP address” and enter the required values for the IP address, Subnet mask and Default gateway.

If you want to change your Preferred DNS server and Alternate DNS server addresses, you can do that here as well. Keep in mind, though, that this is not always necessary and you can change your IP address without needing to change these addresses too. You can also check the “Validate settings upon” exit option, so that the settings are applied as soon as you click or tap the OK button. This will start a Windows Network Diagnostics troubleshooter that validates your network connection after you manually change your IP address settings.

If you use your computer or device on multiple networks, you might need to configure a specific alternate address for one of those networks. To do this without having to change your automatically obtained address, click or tap the Alternate Configuration tab in the “Internet Protocol Version 4 (TCP/IPv4) Properties” window.

Important: The Alternate Configuration tab is only available if you have selected “Obtain an IP address automatically” in the General tab. Then, select the User configured option and type the required settings. Using this type of configuration will make your network adapter choose the alternate configuration when it is unable to automatically obtain the IP address from a network. Click or tap OK to save your settings.

Subnet Mask, DNS, Gateway, WINS - Say what??

I do realize this topic is quite a bit more technical than others that we have covered, so I will try and give you the short and friendly version of what all of these complementary notions mean. I'm doing this because in order to understand how an IP address works, you also need to understand these additional topics that work together to enable the communication between our network computers and devices.

So, without further ado, here's a short description of them:

  • Subnet Mask - a subnet, or subnetwork is a division of an IP network. You can think of it as the area code of your phone number. The subnet is generally used in large networks to split them into two or more networks and make them easier to manage. In home networks and small business networks, all your network computers and devices will be on the same subnet. And all the computers or devices located in the same subnet will have the same subnet mask.
  • Gateway - a gateway is usually a router located on the network that acts as an access point to another network and the internet. For example, your Internet Service Provider has one or multiple gateway servers that your computer uses to connect to the internet. In large business environments, gateways are used also to connect the different subnets/networks that are owned by the company.
  • DNS Server - it stands for Domain Name System and it is a naming system for internet connected devices and computers that basically matches easily memorizable addresses, such as www.digitalcitizen.life to their own IP address. If your DNS server is not working, then you won't be able to browse the web using traditional website addresses. The DNS Server is generally provided by your Internet Service Provider. You can find a more detailed explanation here: What is DNS? How do I see my DNS settings in Windows?
  • WINS Server - it stands for Windows Internet Name Service and it is an outdated type of naming system that was used on older computers and Microsoft operating systems, like Windows 98 or Windows 2000. It was used to dynamically map IP addresses to computer names. However, DNS servers are now used for this task as they perform better.

Conclusion

Now that you have a basic understanding of what an IP address is and how to can change it, you should be able to configure the network settings of your Windows devices quite easily. We’d like to know if you had any problems while changing your IP address. Share them with us and other readers, using the comments form below and we’ll do our best to help.