First of all, Device Manager will not tell you whether or not a device driver is out of date – that’s not its job. What it tells you is if the device driver is installed and working at some basic level.
Finding out whether your device drivers are out of date isn’t that simple – and neither is getting the updates.
I’ll review the options, and describe what I do.
A quickie refresher: Windows is designed to work with all sorts of hardware – even hardware that might not exist yet.
The way Windows manages to do this is that programs are written to use a fairly generic, albeit complex, interface. When you set up the machine, or install new hardware, software translates those generic instructions into whatever the actual hardware on the machine requires.
That low-level software that directly controls your hardware device is called a device driver, or just “driver” for short1.
For example, your video card has software that knows how to translate generic Windows instructions to “draw a pixel here”, or “change the resolution to this” into the specific instructions required by the specific video card in your computer. Different video card, different driver, but Windows and Windows programs still do the same things the same generic way.
Ultimately, the important thing to realize is that drivers are:
- Specific to the hardware they’re designed for.
- Like any software, they can have bugs, security vulnerabilities, and the like.
That means every so often they need updates.
Is A Driver Out of Date?
The real question is more like “how do I know if there’s a more up-to-date version of the device drivers that are installed on my machine?”
Well … that depends.
If the drivers were installed with Windows itself, then there’s a good chance that your answer is very, very simple: Windows Update will tell you, and very likely handle the update for you.
You may need to look at the “Optional Updates” that are offered along with the critical or important updates, and that’s the most practical place to look first.
In fact, that’s all most folk need to do.
If your drivers were not installed as part of Windows – and it can be hard to tell – things get more complicated.
Yes, there are several third-party tools that may tell you.
And yet, I never, ever use them.
I find most to be the classic “we’ll tell you what’s wrong for free, but if you want us to fix it, it’ll cost you money” model. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that; but I often see it in many areas besides driver updates, and to be honest, some of them are scams, or close to it. So, for better or worse, I avoid the entire class of scanning tools that fall into that model.
And when it comes to drivers, as I’ll describe in a moment, the resulting lack of information (is a driver out of date?) doesn’t really bother me that much.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It. But If It’s Broke…
Aside from relying on Windows Update, I actively look for driver updates only when I’m trying to track down a problem (or hear of a problem) with a specific driver or device.
In other words, if things are working, I leave well enough alone.
I realize that’s at odds with the “keep your system updated for safety” mantra which I and others seem to harp on. My thinking is simply this:
- The majority of drivers are already handled by Windows Update. While newer drivers are often available directly from hardware manufacturers, issues dealing with security – the only thing I care about, if I’m not having other problems – are more than likely pushed through the Windows Update pipeline.
- Drivers not handled by Windows Update are diverse enough that targeting any one of them for a potential security vulnerability just isn’t worth most hackers’ time. Effort spent creating malware for a specific video driver, for example, targets only those people with that driver, and then only if that driver is not updated by Windows Update.
- Historically, driver updates are risky. Driver updates that come directly from manufacturers often don’t have the wide breadth of testing that ensures they’ll work, and work properly on my machine. Put another way: updating drivers without reason can be risky.
Where To Find Drivers
As you might guess, I don’t recommend paying driver download utilities to do the work for you. Some may be legitimate and work, but in my opinion, it’s too risky for a couple of reasons:
- They may not be legitimate or work.
- You don’t know where they get their drivers, or indeed, if the drivers they provide are even up to date.
If you’re going to go somewhere other than Windows Update for drivers, I can only recommend one destination: the hardware manufacturer.
Start with the computer manufacturer, especially if yours is a name brand computer. They often provide all the drivers on their support site. Others will point you to the component manufacturer’s site, perhaps even directly to the page you need.
And yes, if the computer manufacturer doesn’t help with either direct downloads or point to the right component manufacturer, then this gets old very fast… which is another reason I only recommend doing it if you’re actually chasing down a problem you’re having with a specific piece of hardware.
If that’s not the case, then the best place to get driver updates is simple: nowhere at all.