Drivers are another one of those “computer things” that are just so much confusing magic to the average computer user.
I’ll touch a little on what they are, and then my philosophy about when and how to update them.
Windows doesn’t know everything about every possible piece of hardware. For example, it knows about network cards, but not how to make every possible network card function. That’s the job of what’s called “device driver” software, or just “drivers”.
Drivers translate Window’s generic instructions into the specific commands that make the hardware do what it does. Each piece of hardware attached to your system requires a driver for this translation.
Some confusion comes from the fact that there are a ton of drivers that come with Windows. When you install Windows, or when you add new hardware to your computer, Windows will frequently notice the change and automatically install the appropriate drivers – even going online to locate them, if needed. In fact, that’s pretty much what “plug and play” is all about: in many scenarios, you never see anything related to drivers; things just work.
However, not all possible drivers are included with Windows. That’s when you get that “please insert the CD” message. When you have hardware whose drivers are not supplied with Windows, the manufacturer is supposed to provide them, typically on a CD accompanying the device.
When to update drivers
When it comes to device drivers, I’m a firm believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. That means I don’t go updating drivers just for the sake of updating drivers. I need a reason.
This is contrary to my approach to all the other software on a machine, which is to keep it as up-to-date as possible. With drivers, I don’t do that.
The catch, of course, is that it’s not always obvious that a driver might needs updating – or, to continue the metaphor, that something is indeed broken and in need of fixing.
The reasons I update drivers boil down to a handful of scenarios, presented in what I’d say is the order in which they most commonly happen:
- I’m experiencing a problem that appears to be related to hardware, and a driver update could help. For example, if my network card is acting flaky and there’s an updated driver available for it, then that might be one of my first steps in attempting to diagnose or repair the problem.
- I need a feature that the Windows-supplied driver doesn’t support. Hardware might well be adequately supported by the drivers that come with Windows, but on occasion, if you install the latest drivers directly from the manufacturer, additional capabilities are revealed, or additional management utilities are provided.
- The driver (or related software) notifies me that an update is available. Many devices now include software that periodically checks for updates, and allows me the choice of installing them when they become available. While this actually violates my “if it ain’t broke” statement, I’ll typically allow these updates to happen, particularly for non-critical devices.
- Windows Update notifies me that there’s an updated driver. Windows Update doesn’t update as many drivers as you might think, or as quickly, but they do update some. When the core Windows-supplied drivers are updated, and it’s considered important enough to push through Windows Update, I always take them.
- I’m alert to a security issues relating to the driver. This is rare, but occasionally I’ll run across information that indicates a driver has a potential security issue. I’ll at least consider updating, depending on the hardware and the issue.
Risks of updating drivers
Microsoft takes a lot of heat for releasing software that isn’t quite ready. Without debating that, it’s often due in part to the reliance on the drivers and software created by others, such as the hardware vendors. As you might expect, there are vendors that have a very good reputation for producing quality software, and others that do not. But driver problems often manifest to users as “Windows problems”.
Unfortunately, driver problems resulting from an upgrade are not unheard of, and the symptoms aren’t always as dramatic as the blue screen of death. I updated the drivers for my wireless network card some time ago, and suddenly the network would drop whenever I reverted to the main screen from a Remote Desktop Connection. It was annoying, but I ended up living with it until the machine was reformatted and rebuilt from scratch.
Hence my “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Driver updates should be painless and should result in things getting better. Most often they do. Sometimes they do not.
To answer another part of your question: a driver update will, naturally, replace the previous driver software, but if the update is performed properly, settings and configuration information will be preserved. Sadly, that too is at risk if the manufacturer does a poor job of providing their updates.
How to update drivers
There’s no single approach to updating drivers. Since drivers are supplied and supported by hundreds, if not thousands, of hardware vendors, the places to look and the techniques to update are similarly varied.
Here’s what I do:
- I back up. Depending on when my most recent automatic backup has happened, I may go so far as to create an image backup right before I begin. If anything at all goes wrong with the update process, I can always revert my machine to this backup. This is a case where only an image backup will really do, since it includes all of Windows, including your current drivers, as well as everything else on the machine.
- I check Windows Update first. In particular, when visiting the Windows Update web site, be sure to look at “optional updates”, which is often where driver updates will show up. Then just use the Windows Update mechanism to download and install the software.
- I check my computer’s manufacturer for updated drivers. If I’m running Dell equipment, for instance, the Dell support site does a good job of leading me to the latest and greatest drivers for almost all my hardware. In most cases, installation is simply a matter of downloading and running an installer.
- Finally, I check the hardware component manufacturer’s web sites. Even though a component may be supported by Windows Update or the computer manufacturer’s site, there’s typically a delay before the updates make it to those locations. The component manufacturer, as you can imagine, is the first place that a driver update will typically be made available.
Now, you’ll note that I did not list driver update services.
Avoid driver update utilities and services
Keeping drivers updated, or even just knowing when and what to update, is not a simple task, as we’ve seen.
As a result, there are a bunch of sites and utilities out there that claim to do it for you. They will supposedly scan your system, tell you what drivers are out of date, and offer to update them all for you.
You’ll note that I said “claim” and “supposedly”. The issue is that these days many, if not most, of these services are scams. They will either load up your machine with an assortment of malware when you install their scanner, or they’ll tell you what you need, only to charge you for the update service.
Even when they’re legit, I believe that driver updates are too important to trust to online services. As we’ve seen above, I don’t believe in just blindly updating them anyway.
As a result, I strongly recommend that you avoid driver update services and utilities.