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Windows comes complete with an extensive set of drivers that will get your machine running, but you may need more to enable your hardware's features.

I am running on Windows XP Pro and want to install Vista premium after wiping my hard drive. Will I need to install system drivers or will this be done when I install vista from disk?

Probably, but not necessarily.

I know, that's not very helpful, but the problem is that once again this is a question with a hundred different answers, or more.

It depends on your machine, the specific installation of Windows you're using, and your own needs and preferences.

I'll walk through the what, why and how of drivers you might need after a reinstall.

Drivers are the pieces of software that "know about" the hardware. Most of Windows is designed to be completely hardware independent or agnostic, but at the lowest level there still needs to be software that has the knowledge to transform a generic request like "draw a rectangle with these characteristics" into the hardware-specific operations required by the graphics card installed on your machine.

"Windows has several approaches to dealing with devices for which it does not have default drivers."

One of Windows' great selling points is that it works with a wide variety of hardware - often hardware that wasn't even in existence when Windows was designed. This is done by having a well defined way of creating and installing drivers that can support new and custom hardware.

Windows itself comes with a fairly amazing collection of drivers on the installation disc. Many, many common hardware components are simply handled "right out of the box" without any thought or intervention on your part. USB drivers, motherboard components, hard disks, and more all require drivers, and for the most part those drivers are all right there from the moment you install.

But, since it's possible that the device and its drivers didn't even exist when Windows was created, what if they're not?

Windows has several approaches to dealing with devices for which it does not have default drivers.

  • Default Behaviour: all key devices - devices that simply must work in order to even use Windows - are required to support some base level of functionality in order to be "Windows compatible". Video cards must support 800x600 resolution; keyboard must support the basic keys; mice must support mouse movement and a right and left mouse button, and so on. And these pieces of hardware must support those features in a predefined generic way that can then be used by the default drivers already included in Windows.

    What this means is that even though your machine has a brand new whizzy gaming enhanced high speed super duper video graphics card that might support much, much more, when you first install Windows you might not be able to access all its features, and may well be limited to lower resolutions, color depths and display speeds.

    But it'll work.

  • OEM Installations: One of the major differences between the versions of Windows offered by different OEMS like HP, Dell and others is that they can pre-load their versions of the Windows discs with their specific drivers (and remove drivers for machines that they don't sell). That's one of the reasons that one manufacturer's disc may not work to install Windows on another machine - the OEM disc is free to make basic assumptions about the capabilities of the hardware it's being installed on that may simply be incorrect when used on any other machine.

    When using an OEM install disc on a machine that it was targeted for, you may find that more devices work more completely than had you used a generic retail installation disc, or an installation disc meant for some other machine.

  • Windows Update: I ran across this recently myself, and it might be only available in newer versions of Windows: after installing Windows 7 and getting a "generic" network driver for my network adapter, Windows Update kicked in and updated that driver to one more specific for my particular hardware.

    When you think about it, it makes sense. The Windows installation discs are by definition limited to containing only those drivers that were available at the time the disk was created. Windows Update has no such restriction - as soon as the drivers pass whatever quality assurance process is necessary, they can be made available for download. (Check your optional updates, or visit the Windows Update website.)

  • Manual Installation: naturally if your device does not have a complete driver on the Windows installation disc, and nothing's available via Windows Update, then it's typically up to you locate and install drivers for that device. Often that means using the installation disc that came with the device, or downloading the drivers from the manufacturer's web site.

Even with that list addressing "where do drivers come from", the decision's still not as cut and dried as you might think.

Let's say you've installed your system and it's working well without you having to install any additional drivers on your own. There may still be additional drivers available that enable features you didn't realize you could have.

As an example, I believe my laptop keyboard is likely to be more configurable if I were to download specific drivers from the manufacturer. But it's working well with the default drivers and I don't miss the features.

Should I install the more specific drivers or not?

I've elected not to, taking the position "if it's not broken, don't fix it". However, others may feel differently.

Ultimately, the answer to your original question is technically "no": all the drivers to get your machine up and running are included either in the retail Windows installation disc, or the OEM installation disc for your machine. However, you might find that it's not enough. Depending on your hardware, and even your own preferences, you may still want to go out and locate updated, specific drivers to enable additional features and functionality in the hardware you have.

But at least your machine will be up and running without needing to do that.

Article C4119 - January 15, 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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10 Comments
JH
January 19, 2010 1:41 PM

I've found that Windows has generic drivers for almost everything EXCEPT some wireless adapters. Which seems a little silly as surely if you have Internet you effectively have everything you need to get other drivers.
Also, I think Windows 98 had an option to search for drivers using some form of Windows Update. I personally always use windows update as it ensures the most current drivers are found.

Dan
January 19, 2010 2:05 PM

I work at a computer repair shop and to resolve the re-installation of drivers we use a backup driver software (Driver Genius Professional) to back up drivers (before re-installation of OS) into a self-installation .exe file for each brand name and model number.

Also we use Everest to find exactly what driver to install for scenario's where DGP is not applicable.

Thanks for the Newsletter and keep up the great work.!!

Cheers,

Dan.....!!!!!!!

Frank
January 19, 2010 2:33 PM

Win 7 has support for a huge number of drivers including most wireless devices.

EGBE LUMPENS
January 19, 2010 8:49 PM

It is true that windows 7 comes with more drivers,but the funny thing is that it can't join a Domain......
And like you ask.It will be adviseable to always install the drivers after a fresh intallation of windows if it is not windows7.preferably running the disc drivers that comes with Operating System;this because you might use drivers that are not compatible with the actual Operating system in used.

santosh
January 19, 2010 11:37 PM

I have windows 7 installed in my pc motherboard845 but screen resoluion problem

Pookey
January 20, 2010 3:39 AM

@EGBE LUMPENS

Do you have Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows 7 Professional? If you have Home Premium then you are unable to join a domain because that feature is not a part of Home Premium. You will need to purchase an upgrade to Professional in order to join a domain.

Mike Watson
January 21, 2010 6:25 AM

Don't do it - dont swap from XP to Vista. Worst thing i ever did, not only is it ideciferable but a lot of old drivers dont work with it. DON~T DO IT go for Windows 7.

Iain
January 24, 2010 4:56 AM

Hi Leo,

I have valid, legal installations of Windows XP on both a laptop and a PC. My laptop has a virus, which prevents me from logging on.

I downloaded BartPE, but it could not locate the installation files on my PC and I have no installation disc for either. I have searched for the i386 folder on my PC, but it does not seem to be present.

I do not know how to get into DOS on my laptop, in order to copy the userinit file from the dll cache or system32.

Any suggestions?

Mr. Grant
November 17, 2011 10:38 AM

just reboot your pc with a new operating system it will kill all your viruses. if youre labtop is infected in a way you cant fix then reboot a new operating system on to it .

Eiva
December 4, 2011 11:43 AM

Ive heard all default drivers are installed along with windows...
And also if you delete a driver and restart your computer then the drivers reinstall so i dont think there will be any problems ;)

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