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The Murky World of Device Drivers

Sandra Prior
Jun 9, 2008
A device driver is a piece of software that translates vague requests from the operating system, such as 'draw a red circle on the screen at this position and with this radius', to specific instructions that the hardware understands.

Although Windows device drivers have become the universal scapegoat for unexplained computer glitches and lock-ups, they are actually a fantastic improvement on what went before. DOS peripherals generally didn't come with separate drivers and support needed to be built directly into each application. If you wanted to print from Lotus 123, you could only do it on one of the handful of printers that 123 had been specifically written to handle.

Device drivers enable software developers to automatically support all peripherals that conform to a particular standard and they enable hardware manufacturers to develop innovative new devices without worrying about backward compatibility.

Why Update?

You can access your CD-WRITER, connect to the Net with your modem and print from the printer, so why do you need to update any drivers? There are several reasons why you might decide to fix your system, even though it doesn't appear to be broken.

The first is that many drivers ship with bugs. The huge number of different permutations of installed devices mean that incompatibilities are often not detected until the driver is effectively beta-tested by the unsuspecting public. Many early Windows XP drivers were also written before the operating system was officially released and what worked on one of the early builds of Windows XP may not on the final release.

Very old peripherals may have been shipped with 16-bit device drivers and if Windows does not have a 32-bit replacement, your system will be slowed significantly as it is forced to operate in DOS compatibility mode.

Even if your system does work correctly, it may be that extra functionality has been provided since you bought it. This might mean V.90 compliance for your 56k modem or a toner saving mode for your printer.

Whose Fault is it?

The most important thing to realize with device drivers is that they are the responsibility of the hardware manufacturer. Therefore, the best source for the most up-to-date version will be the website of the manufacturer. You need to know the exact model and make of your hardware, and then you can try and find the drivers.

Looking at the expansion cards itself can provide clues, as chip set identities are often printed on to chips. These snippets can be used as search terms to locate the driver.

Time for a Change

Once you have tracked down the driver you require, the hardest part is over. Drivers are usually made available over the Net as self extracting archives or zip format. If the file does not incorporate its own installation routines, copy the files to a folder on your hard drive. Open the system properties dialogue box from the control panel. Click the properties button for the particular peripheral and switch to the driver tab. Click update driver and point to the new files. Select your peripheral from a list that appears and restart your system if prompted.

Although updating device drivers is easy to do, you should realize that installing any new software can introduce conflicts, and because device drivers access the hardware directly, they have even greater potential to wreak havoc if they do not precisely match the peripheral installed on your system.

As a precaution, always back-up your Windows folder and all its sub-folders before updating any drivers because DLL and VXD will normally be overwritten without warning.
About the Author
Sandra Prior runs her own websites at http://usacomputers.rr.nu and http://sacomputers.rr.nu.
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