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Drivers are critically important components of your computer, but knowing when and how to update them isn't as easy or as obvious as we might like.
I have been reading about the importance of updating, if required, the various device drivers within in a system. As I understand it, this can be done by identifying the driver that may require updating and then, by accessing the manufacturers web site, determine if there are any updates. If so I believe that the update can be downloaded. Does the download over write the existing data within the device in question?
I must confess to being a bit nervous regarding this approach and because of this I have looked at driver update services such as those provided by PCDrivers and others.
Drivers are another one of those "computer things" that are just so much more confusing magic to most average computer users.
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 each and every possible network card work. That's the job of what's called "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 to do this translation.
Some confusion comes from the fact that there are a ton of drivers that just come with Windows. When you install Windows, or when you add new hardware to your computer, Windows will frequently just notice the change and automatically install the appropriate drivers. In fact, that's pretty much what "plug and play" is all about. In many common scenarios you may never even see or know about 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
I'm a firm believer in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". That means I typically won't go updating drivers just for the sake of updating drivers. I need a reason.
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'll 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 to 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 exposed, or additional management utilities are provided.
The driver or related software notifies me that an update is available. Many devices will 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 or as often you might think, 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
Microsoft gets a lot of heat for releasing software that isn't quite ready. Without debating that, it's often in part due 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 don't have to be 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 then 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
Unfortunately 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 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 then check my computer's manufacturer for updated drivers. Since I run almost exclusively Dell equipment, 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 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. I don't want you to read too much into that, yet.
Keeping drivers updated, or even just knowing when and what to update is not a simple task, as we've seen. I think that there's potential for these services to add a lot of value. I'm just not sure if they actually do yet, or if they hit that magical balance between always updating whether you need it or not and not updating often enough.
Also, from what I've seen, the services may not streamline the actual update process. While they'll notify you of newly available updates, actual installation is handed back to the hardware manufacturer's download.
All that being said, I think there's a lot of potential and would welcome reader suggestions and experience in the comments to this article.
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