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Microsoft Windows Update will often suggest optional Windows driver updates. They're optional, so you don't need to take them, but should you?

Microsoft Windows update lists an optional driver update available: nVidia Geforce 8800 GTX display software update size 110.5 Mb dated 4-22-2010.

Should I download and install these kinds of optional driver updates? My graphics card is working properly, why should I install something that might mess things up?

In a case like this, there's certainly some merit to the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" approach that you're suggesting.

In fact, you don't have to take the update - that's one reason it's marked as optional.

However, I typically do, and I'll explain why.

Driver updates can be tricky beasts. Because they deal with hardware at a fairly low level, they can have a fairly dramatic impact on system performance, both good and bad.

"The latest drivers" - which you'll often hear people like me mentioning as we troubleshoot various problems - are typically those offered by the manufacturer of a particular piece of hardware. In your example, the latest and greatest is likely available at nVidia's own web site.

"... I don't even give that optional driver update much thought other than to click 'yes'."

It's important to realize that's not what you're probably getting from Windows Update.

Those "latest and greatest" from the vendor sites are typically just that - the very latest. I tend to shy away from them unless I'm specifically troubleshooting a problem that they stand a chance of correcting. Why? It's difficult to quantify, but to put it vaguely, they make me nervous; they're often "too new". While they'll have gone through the manufacturer's own testing and quality assurance process, that can vary dramatically from vendor to vendor, and often doesn't take into account the wide variety of systems and configurations that are out there.

That's where Microsoft's Updates come in.

Before a driver shows up in Windows Update, not only will it have (presumably) passed the manufacturer's own testing, but Microsoft's as well.

One of the things that Microsoft does take into account when testing Windows or any component of Windows is the massive variation in hardware and software configurations that are out in the "real world". In fact, it's one of the reasons that it takes Microsoft so darned long to release software: the amount of testing required is simply staggering.

The net result for me is that by the time something shows up on Windows Update I'm fairly confident that it'll probably work. In fact, I've had some annoyances I'd been living with disappear after taking optional driver updates to my system. I guess that's some positive reinforcement.

Now, of course, the Microsoft haters will point out repeatedly and vehemently that update so-and-so completely hosed their machine, or that Windows Update regularly causes them grief.

And I certainly can't dispute that.

Systems have become so complex that getting anything absolutely positively 100% correct for absolutely positively 100% of all possible machines - and in particular doing so in any reasonable amount of time - is simply impossible. So it becomes a situation where someone literally has to say "good enough" when it perhaps fails only 1 out of a million machines instead of 1 in a thousand.

I'm making all these numbers up, of course, but consider - one in a million is pretty darned good. Chances are that you'd never run into it, right? Now figure that according to Microsoft predictions by now there are well over a billion Windows installations. (*) That means that if there is a problem on 1 in a million machines then 1,000 machines will see it.

If you've got one of those 1,000 machines it doesn't matter that the odds were in your favor by a huge factor, you still have a problem.

That's what confidence means. It doesn't mean that you won't have a problem, it means that you probably won't have a problem.

And if you're truly concerned, then you also control the steps you can take as well:

  • Backup first. Naturally, you should be backing up regularly in which case this isn't an additional step, but either way it's the step that can save you from almost anything, including an optional driver update that causes you problems.

  • Skip it. It's optional. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'd have missed out on a couple of annoyances being resolved, but they were only annoyances - perhaps the risk of larger problems it too concerning for you. No problem: skip it.

Me? I backup of course. Every night. Should I end up being "one in a million", I'm covered.

In fact, backups cover me for so many other types of problems that are much more likely, I don't even give that optional driver update much thought other than to click "yes".

Article C4337 - June 10, 2010 « »

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.

Not what you needed?

Doug Brace
June 10, 2010 7:07 PM

In my experience, if I have a computer and all of it's major hardware (chipset, audio, video, network) has drivers installed from the vendor or the OEM, if I install the drivers from Windows/Microsoft Update they tend to break. So unless there is a piece of hardware that I can't find the drivers for, I don't trust the Windows/Microsoft Update drivers.

June 10, 2010 7:50 PM

I agree with Doug. Too many times I've seen Microsoft's drivers break a working system. I'd rather update my system from the manufacturer's web site. They do a pretty good job of providing the most recent drivers that work with "their" systems. By the way, I'm talking about the computer manufacturer, not the individual device manufacturer.

June 11, 2010 2:15 AM

The only time I've ever seen an issue, is with 'tweaked' (i.e. cut-down, knobbled, or otherwise somehow limited) hardware for laptops.
My laptop is supposed to have a true Nvidia graphics card in it. It doesn't. Loading the 'official' drivers from the Nvidia website for that series simply screws up. I have to dig for the drivers specific to the model of laptop (from the laptop manufacturer's site) which have been similarly 'tweaked' to suit the hardware.

June 11, 2010 6:22 AM

I love the fact Windows Update finds the drivers you might need (at least in windows 7 it does), because that way even though I had no disc with drivers from the manufacturer I could still install Windows 7 successfully (instead of vista that was already on it) and get most of the hardware to work just fine. I still have to have a look into the built-in web cam though, but I never use that anyway.

June 11, 2010 11:10 PM

only d-load them from manufactures sight to often has the ones i get from windows update broke something. i talked to nvidia support on this and they recommend to only d-load them from there sight. or manufacture of the card.

Elaine Schaeffer
June 15, 2010 10:17 AM

i take ms updates. optional ones i read and reread if they are helpful i wish they would just send them in. i have had my vista computer 3 years and 6mo. got vista the day it came out and the first one i have ever own. been very lucky with it and learned more then i can say and whick i knew more but learn as it come my way. have issues of what folks back up. i make paper copy just because i like it. i do not do anything important just means something to me and that is why i keep a paper copy.. I still have the mouse that works with the roller ball. and i like it but it get dirty at time. been looking for a back up. i do not have wirless connection and not sure if wirless moust works without. i have not got around to asking that just hoping mouse keep on going. just personal use on computer and like taking online classes and playing games and emailing and just things i do for groups but know how to creat all i have put on computer. made a copy of this issue on downloads because i am sure it will happen to me. I just finished with flash player errors playing games. they send me info i send them and between them and ie8 i think they got it fixed. it now so fast my mouse is giving me issues. have cleaned it and so will find out later. but if feel that but do not know i best get a mouse that plugs to the tower but is working from the main wire as it is now but not found out yet. going to have to go to staples again and check w/ the tech folks and see what they can help me with. if you have and info to share i would love to have it so i can learn more and keep enjoying my computer. i do like my vista ty.

Marcia Rita Jacobs
June 16, 2010 11:34 AM

Recently received an alert from Verizon that settings on e-mail would change. Thought it did not apply to me having Windows Mail. I subsequently experienced a freeze-up in e-mail where Windows could not comply with certain clicks on e-mail links, actually preventing me from up-grading my blu-ray player with one of the offered links. So, I thought, what would my clever daughter do? I then chose a date before the change took place, restored my computer, and voila!! It worked..I still don't know where the culprit was, but I'm o.k. for now!!

June 18, 2010 10:37 AM

1>Only ever had on problem with MS download, IE8,and I do not think it is fixed yet.I'm very happy with Google Chrome at this time.
2> I'm running 1 computer without any anti whatever software,on the net but no E-Mail, it has been almost 2 years no problems at all.I am amazed!

June 19, 2010 5:21 AM

I am of the "if it ain't broke" camp. As a 11 year PC tech, I have learned to never install optional updates unless there is a problem I'm trying to solve. I never install hardware updates from MS, as I have had problems in the past, specifically with video drivers. I will say that the MS update site is a quick and easy way to see if there are any updates available for your hardware. If updates are available, I'll go to the manufacturers site every time, but again, if it ain't broke...

October 19, 2010 11:09 PM

where can I find articles on 'lost bookmarks'..they were grayed out, now I can't even access anything when I click on 'bookmarks' can I fix it...thank you.

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