Understanding Windows Drivers
Device drivers, usually just called "drivers", are some of the most important components in your computer operating system. They are entirely responsible for allowing Windows and your applications to use every device installed in or attached to your computer, including the hard drive, keyboard, mouse, monitor and printer. Faults or bugs in a driver will affect the stability of the system, inefficiencies in a driver will affect the performance of system, and using the wrong driver or an out of date driver can affect your ability to make full use of all the features of the device it is connected to. Drivers are very, very critical pieces of software.
Why does Windows need drivers?
Back in the early days of computers, operating systems did not have drivers. The applications themselves communicated directly with the hardware. Your word processor would send data directly to your printer, as would every other program that printed.
This was not a big a problem in the days when devices were very simple, when monitors had only plain text monochrome displays and printers were like electric typewriters and didn't have different fonts or print in color. But as devices got more sophisticated, so did the commands needed to control them and use all their new features. Applications needed to know about the capabilities of all the different devices and provide software routines called drivers to make use of them. Developing and maintaining drivers to support all the different devices became a big job for application writers.
Then along came Windows. Microsoft designed a new architecture in which device drivers became part of the operating system. This avoided the need for application writers to get involved with writing device drivers. If an application wanted to print or display on screen, it sent commands to Windows following the standards defined by Microsoft for printing or graphical output. The printer manufacturer or graphics card manufacturer produced a driver that obeyed the commands defined by Microsoft, which was then installed into Windows. So now application writers only had to support the Windows interface to the device, and any application could now use any device that came with a Windows driver. This was a big improvement over the situation in the "old days".
Why do drivers need updating?
When you buy a Windows PC it comes with Windows installed on it, including the drivers for all the devices in it. And if you buy an accessory device like a printer or a new graphics card it comes with a disk containing the drivers for it. Once you have installed the driver, the device works. That's the end of it, surely?
Unfortunately, no. Device drivers, like any software, are complex. They can contain bugs that compromise the stability of the system. They have also, often, been developed in a hurry. When the hardware is complete, the manufacturer wants to get it into the shops as quickly as possible. But developing software takes time. So the drivers on the CD that comes with the device may well be a quick hack of the drivers for last year's model. The manufacturer will release updates over a period of time, either to make improvements or to correct faults that have come to light. So for best performance and stability you should keep your drivers updated.
This is especially true for graphics card or display drivers. Graphics drivers are the most complex of all Windows device drivers. They can use all kinds of tricks to improve graphics drawing speed using hardware acceleration, and are capable of almost constant improvement. Graphics drivers have a core role in the operating system because they are also used by printer drivers when rendering graphical images. So they have an affect on performance and stability not only of the display but also of printing. Because they are so complex they are updated often. Using outdated display drivers can have a significant impact on system performance.
What about Windows Update?
But what about Windows Update? That will keep my drivers updated, surely?
Unfortunately, no. Microsoft includes drivers for third party hardware in Windows because it wants users to have a smooth out-of-the-box experience. It doesn't want people who installed a new copy of Windows having to spend the first few hours hunting the Internet for drivers for all their hardware devices. But Microsoft isn't concerned with supplying the latest drivers for every device. Its only concern is that the drivers are stable and won't cause problems that Microsoft gets blamed for. In the case of printer drivers for example it often supplies generic drivers that work with a large number of similar printers but provide basic printing support only. The drivers that support the specific features of a particular printer will be supplied by the manufacturer.
The same goes for display drivers. The ones that come with Windows will work, but they won't be the ones that use all the hardware acceleration features of that expensive graphics card.
Microsoft will generally only update the drivers supplied with Windows if a fault or a security flaw is found. It will not automatically update drivers just because there are now better ones. If you click "Update Driver" in the Properties window for the driver in Control Panel, you will only receive an update if an updated version is held by Microsoft. Windows will not download drivers from a manufacturer's website for you.
Nor will Microsoft update the drivers for devices that were produced after that version of Windows was released, drivers that you installed from the manufacturer-supplied CD. New drivers for new hardware are normally only added to Windows during the major Service Pack releases.
Sticking with the drivers supplied with Windows and updating them only if Microsoft updates them will give you a computer that works, but not one that works to its full performance or potential.
How to update drivers
If you want to update the drivers for your devices, how do you go about it? One way to be sure of getting genuine manufacturer-approved drivers is to go to the manufacturer's website and download them from there. Unfortunately, finding the part of the site where you can download drivers can be hard. Once there, it may be difficult to determine what are the correct drivers. There may be different drivers for similar-looking model numbers. Which is the right one? There may be different drivers for different models of hardware released in different markets, for example Europe or the USA. Then there is the risk of downloading drivers for the wrong version of Windows. In short, it's often confusing.
You could search for drivers using Google. That's really a bad idea. There are a lot of sites that have been set up to help people locate Windows drivers for their hardware, precisely because it can be difficult to find the original source - especially for obsolete hardware. These sites are well-intentioned, but risky. Because the drivers are uploaded by users, there is no guarantee that they are really what they say they are, or even that they haven't been tampered with to contain adware or spyware. I've had a system trashed installing drivers from a site like that, so the risk is real.
Driver update services
If you aren't confident about finding the right drivers from the original manufacturer's website, or you just don't have the time to go looking for them, then the answer could be to use a driver update service or application. These are not free services - they employ people who are paid to locate the latest official driver updates and check them - you are usually required to buy an annual subscription. But they take all the hassle out of locating the correct, most up to date drivers needed by your computer.
An application scans your PC to determine what devices are installed in it and which driver versions it is using. It then cross-checks with the service's central database and produces a list of updates that are available, with direct links to download them. It could not be easier.
We recommend DriverScanner. It's an easy to use Windows based tool that makes keeping your system's drivers up to date as easy as possible.
Using a driver update service will save you time, avoid the risk of installing incorrect drivers - or worse, drivers containing a virus or spyware - and will ensure that you get the best performance from your Windows PC and all of its accessories.