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Device driver updates can come from several places. I'll review which sources for driver updates are best, and where else you might need to look.

I believe my OS is Windows Home XP..SP3. I downloaded 3 separate 'check drivers' programs. Each program identified the same 7 drivers as being outdated. However, my device mngr. says they're OK. The drivers listed are: System devices: ISAPNP Read Data Port, SIS Processor to AGP Controller, IDE ATA/ATAPI Controller, Standard Dual Channel PCI IDE Controller, SIS PCI IDE Controller; Network Adaptors: SIS 900-Based PCI Fast Ethernet Adapter: Sound Video & Game Controllers: Realtek AC 97 Audio: Modems PCI Data Fax Softmodem with Smart CP. The 7th. driver was AMD Sempron Processor 3000+, which my device mngr. said was OK..But I updated it anyway & now my PC is working much better. The AMD Processor was very easy to find & download. It's been very difficult to find the other drivers & if they are outdated..I will have to purchase one of the driver programs. Do I need to update these drivers? If so, how do I find the sites to download?

First of all, device manager will not tell you whether or not a device driver is out of date - that's not its job.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 will tell you is if the device driver is installed and working to some basic level.

No, to find out whether your device drivers are out of data isn't that simple.

But then, neither is getting the updates.

I'll review the options, and then describe what I do.

Driver?

A quickie refresher: Windows is designed to work with all sorts of hardware, even hardware that might not even exist yet. The way Windows manages to do this is that programs are written to use a fairly generic (albeit complex) interface, and then software that's installed when you setup the machine or install new hardware translates those generic instructions into whatever the actual specific hardware on the machine requires.

"If the drivers were installed with Windows ... Windows Update will tell you."

That low level software that actually directly controls your hardware is drivers. For example, your video card will have software installed that knows how to translate Windows instructions to "draw a pixel here", or "change the resolution to this" into the actual instructions required by the specific video card installed. Different video card, different driver, but Windows still gets to do the same things.

But ultimately the important thing to realize is that drivers are a) software, and b) specific to the hardware they're designed for. Oh, and c) since they're software they can have bugs, security vulnerabilities and the like.

That means every so often they might get 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. You may need to look at the "Optional Updates" that may be offered along with the critical updates, but that's often the most practical place to look.

And, in fact, is all most folks need to do.

If your drivers were not installed as part of Windows - and it can frequently be hard to tell - things get more complicated.

Yes, there are several third party tools that may tell you.

And yet, I never use them.

I find most to be a classic "we'll tell you what's wrong, and then charge you to solve it for you" model. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that. I just see it very often 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 only actively look for driver updates when I'm actually 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 hacker's 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.

  • Driver updates are, historically, riskier. Driver updates that come directly from manufacturers often don't have the wide breadth of testing that ensures that 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 so for you. Some may be legitimate and work, but in my opinion it's too risky for a couple of reasons:

  • they may not

  • you don't know where they get the drivers from, or indeed, if they are 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. I'd start with the computer manufacturer - especially if yours is a name brand computer. They often provide all the drivers on their support site without any further investigation. Others will actually point you at the component manufacturer's site - perhaps even directly at the page you need.

And yes, if the computer manufacturer doesn't help with either direct downloads or pointers 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.

Article C4487 - October 14, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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5 Comments
Les Meyers
October 19, 2010 1:05 PM

Your advice on the driver update programs is 'Spot On', Leo. I have tried at least 3 driver update programs from very reputable software companies. While they usually recommended the correct update, they occasionally miss-identified the correct update resulting in failure of the device. I found that the PC manufacturer is the best source for driver updates even long after the PC warranty has expired.

chesscanoe
October 19, 2010 2:36 PM

It's hard to know if your driver is current if you don't know what drivers are installed on your PC, what version they're at, and what company wrote them. This info and more is easily provided by DriverView from http://www.nirsoft.net/utils/driverview.html

David
October 20, 2010 3:01 AM

Yes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I do a lot of tinkering as background work to my IT support work. I've found hundreds of ways to screw things up and updating drivers, although not inherently bad by itself as an exercise, opens up potential other problems. Unless something is not working or seems to be slower or flakier than you remember, leave it alone. And as for external 'Driver update' sites, as Leo says, "...some of them are scams, or close to it". (Similar to the FREE Virus scan sites one of my clients visited today and which is causing me grief even as I type now)

Dave Markley
October 20, 2010 10:27 AM

Having been in the computer repair business for several years now I've found that 99% of these 'driver update' programs are either total scams or want a lot of money for something that YOU can do for free, usually in minutes.

First, I highly recommend only getting updates, whenever possible, from your computer's manufacturer's website (usually on the 'Support' page). If they don't have current updates (and believe me - some don't) I usually use C/Net's Download.com site or Softpedia. They often still have drivers for older computers that the manufacturers have deleted from their servers long ago.

You can also try Intel and Nvidia (providing your computer uses contains these components - many do). They can usually, with your permission, scan your PC to see if they have available updates.

When you use the 'Search Automatically' option in Device Manager Windows is only searching in Microsoft Updates archive, not the entire internet as it sounds!

As Leo said - If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Bob
December 14, 2010 3:13 AM

I have had one or two difficulties with driver updates.
My last laptop supposedly had an Nvidia graphics card, but installing the Nvidia drivers caused severe problems - I had to use the drivers from the laptop manufacturer's website.
It also seems that the drivers from Microsoft are written by them, not the hardware manufacturer, so may or may not work in specific instances.

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