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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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.
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.