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Can I Have Too Many Drivers?

My digital camera needs for me to install a driver. Nothing
unusual about that. I now have half a dozen or more devices (MP3 players,
scanners, printers, and the like) that need drivers. My question is, does each
driver I pile on top of windows (ME in my case) make windows that much more
flaky? Should I be removing drivers when I don’t think I will need them any
more to avoid problems? It just seems to me that if you load too many drivers,
windows would reach a point where it would be so burdened by drivers that it
could never work right.

This is a classic case of “Theory” versus “Practice”.

In theory everything should just work.

In practice? Not so much.

In fact, it’s one of the causes of something called “software rot”.

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“Windows comes with a fairly extensive set of default device drivers…”

Drivers, or more completely device drivers, are the software
components unique to each piece of hardware that, in essence, translate what
Windows asks for into the specific language of that hardware. At the hardware
level, most devices are quite different … each offers its own set of unique
features and functionality, and often does so in different ways. The device
driver sits in between the hardware device and Windows, responding to a
standard protocol when talking with Windows, and using a very device-specific
protocol when talking to the hardware.

Windows comes with a fairly extensive set of default device drivers for many
common devices. Standard hard disks, video cards, USB devices and the like. But
once you want to install a device that Windows doesn’t have a driver for, or if
you want to make use of features that the standard device drivers don’t
support, it’s time to install the drivers supplied by the manufacturer.

In theory, device drivers work, work well, don’t conflict with each other,
and stay out of the way when their hardware is not being used, or is not
present.

As you’ve probably guessed, in practice that’s not always the case.

Drivers work, and work well: Most of the time that’s true.
However you’ve probably noted that getting updated drivers for a troublesome
piece of hardware is also often a first diagnostic step. The fact is drivers
are often difficult and complex pieces of software to write. To be honest, not
all manufacturers do a good job. That’s one reason that Microsoft took many
drivers in-house and made them part of Windows, and why they established the
quality requirements for the Windows Logo. And yet, the thousands upon
thousands of different drivers written by thousands of different companies with
varying skills and agendas … well, problems are bound to happen. (It’s
actually one of the strong arguments for a closed platform, like the Mac.)

Drivers don’t conflict with each other: A well behaved,
well written driver does its own job, and “play’s well with others”. The
reality is that a poorly written driver may inadvertently wreak havoc with
other hardware or software on the system. This has gotten somewhat better with
Windows XP – it’s still possible, but poorly written driver is now more likely
to hurt only itself.

“Is removing drivers the answer? Maybe …”

Drivers stay out of the way when their hardware is not in use, or is
removed
: In many cases drivers remain in memory and potentially active
even when their device is not being used, or even when it’s been removed from
the system entirely.

Now, it may sound like I’m really coming down on the writers of device
drivers – and in a way, I guess I am. To their credit, writing device drivers
can be incredibly complex, detailed and if you’re like me, fascinating work.
But it’s also easy to make mistakes. And mistakes in drivers can have all sorts
of ramifications – some obvious, some obscure.

Is removing drivers the answer? Maybe, though to be honest it kinda scares
me, particularly on Windows 9x/Me platforms. Uninstalling drivers can,
sometimes, end up causing more problems than it solves.

But ultimately the answer to your question is yes … the more you load up
your system with drivers and other things, and the more you uninstall, the more
likely it is to start to become unstable. This applies to application software
as well as drivers. If you’re at all actively installing and uninstalling
software or hardware, over time you’ll probably experience “software rot” – the
gradual degradation in performance and/or stability of your system. It’ll
probably happen faster on Windows 9x/Me, but even on Windows XP it happens.

My recommended solution is simple, yet a bit of work. When you start to
suspect software rot as having adversely affected your system’s stability, reformat and reinstall. Everything.
From scratch. Start with a clean slate, installing only what you need. Yes, you
may be restarting the cycle if you continue to install and uninstall hardware
and software. In my case I find myself re-building my most active machines
about every year or two. Your experience may vary based on yoru operating system,
and just how often and what kinds of things you’re installing and removing.

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5 comments on “Can I Have Too Many Drivers?”

  1. Forget drivers, get rid of Windows ME. Downgrade to 98, upgrade to 2000 or XP, run Linux, run BSD, but don’t run Windows ME unless you have no other choice.

    Reply
  2. reformat – reinstall everything ?
    haha – my main comp system is an upgrade from win98 through win2k to winxp and has been through about 7 different motherboards since 1999 – it would take me a week to re-install everything – but then it has taken me a week before to migrate from the old motherboard to the new one …
    i only use full system backups – never used windows system restore .

    Reply
  3. Is this advice still current for Windows 7? I have a couple of peripherals (cameras, Scanners) which no longer meet my needs, and I need to upgrade them. Is there a way to reliably remove the unneeded device drivers totally from the system?

    Reply

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