We’ve got everything you need to know about Windows Drivers.
Most people who have spent any time working with computers will be vaguely aware of the term drivers. However, few are completely clued up on what they are, what they do, and why they’re important.
It’s just one of those terms which sits in the public consciousness, yet remains somewhat esoteric at the same time.
If you are one of the many people who doesn’t really know what drivers are all about, then this guide is for you. You’ll learn everything you need to know so that next time someone says, “Does anyone actually know what a driver is?” you’ll be able to step up and impress everyone with your vast knowledge. (Please note, FileHippo accepts no responsibility for any apathetic stares you may receive.)
Perhaps more usefully, you can learn the best practices for keeping your drivers updated, the pros and cons of Windows and manufacturer produced drivers, and some great pieces of software to help you keep them automatically updated.
What is a Driver?
In a nutshell, a driver is the piece of software which allows your computer to communicate with a peripheral piece of hardware. When you connect any new device – be it a mouse, printer, video/sound/network card, hard drive, video game controller, or even a USB drive – your computer needs to install software so it knows how to interact with it. Without drivers, your computer and the peripheral would remain entirely separate from a functional point of view, and completely useless to one another.
Think of all the processes which are involved when you want to print a document, for example. You select the print option and choose the printer you want to use. Your computer then communicates with the printer to generate a print preview based on the device’s capabilities. The computer must know everything about the printer to present appropriate options, such as colour/black and white, scaling, two-sided printing etc. Once the print button is pressed, the entire document needs to be sent to the printer to be produced. The printer can also tell the computer when ink is running low, how many print jobs are in the queue, and more information besides.
Or, imagine you are watching a video on YouTube. You may think you’re just pressing play in your browser and away you go. But in fact there are drivers behind the scenes doing a whole lot of heavy lifting. Your computer is communicating with its video and sound cards to enable you to see and hear the content, and your network card is allowing the data which the video is made from to be streamed from the internet. The drivers associated with each of these pieces of hardware are set up, so that, when you hit play on that YouTube video, your computer knows exactly what to do to complete the request and stream your content, without you even being aware of it.
Drivers are so named because, without them, your devices are as useless as a car with nobody behind the wheel.
Where Can You Find Them?
Drivers are often contained on the device itself, but are just as likely to be on a separate disk packaged with it, or automatically downloaded from the internet the first time the peripheral is connected to an internet-enabled machine.
Alternatively, Windows has an extensive library of drivers for almost every piece of hardware. Once the device is connected for the first time, Windows scans its database, finds the appropriate driver, and installs it. Like any software installation, you may need to reboot your computer afterwards, but then your new hardware should be ready to go. If Windows is unable to locate a suitable driver, it will use Windows Updater to find one online, download it, and install the software.
Sometimes it occurs (as it did with this author and a troublesome printer recently) that Windows is unable to find the correct driver, both in its own archives, or online. When this happens, you often need to visit the website of the device’s manufacturer, and manually search for the product and find the correct driver package for both the device and your operating system.
In the case of what happened with my own printer, it was necessary to visit the printer manufacturer’s website, locate the model number of the exact product being installed, and then search through an expansive list of possible drivers for the correct one. Once the package had been downloaded, an executable file was run, and the drivers were installed like any other piece of software.
Windows or Manufacturer?
A question which is often asked regarding drivers is this: When given the choice, is it best to use the drivers provided by Windows, or from the device manufacturer?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Windows drivers offer the best compatibility with your operating system and should work perfectly almost all the time. It’s for this reason that it’s often best to use Windows drivers for basic devices such as network cards, printers, webcams etc. However, for devices such as video or sound cards, you may find you get better performance – such as improved frames per second or clearer audio – from the manufacturer’s own drivers.
It is just as important to keep your drivers updated as with any other piece of software. You may think it’s working just fine, and therefore don’t see the benefit in updating. But updates come with all-important bug fixes, security enhancements, and new features. Often, updates will also improve the performance of your computer as more efficient ways of using the same hardware have been discovered since you first installed it.
Returning to our earlier metaphor, devices with installed drivers which are not kept regularly and properly updated can be similar to a car with nobody behind the wheel – though the car will already be in motion. Devices with outdated drivers are significantly more prone to crashing, and will likely not allow you to complete the task you were attempting to use it for.
Keeping up with updating your drivers can be a pain in the posterior, however. Thankfully, there are some useful automatic driver updaters which can take care of the hard work for you, so you can sit back and enjoy the ride.
There you have our ultimate guide on the strange and esoteric world of Windows drivers.
Hopefully, you now have a far better idea of what this software does and why it’s so important to keep it updated with all the latest patches and fixes. There are few things more frustrating when trying to get work, gaming, or anything else done on a computer, than intermittent issues or full-blown crashing. Keeping your drivers updated is the best way to avoid these annoyances.
Thankfully, some of the big-hitters of the antivirus world have your back, and have developed software to help you keep everything running as intended. Try out some of the great choices on FileHippo, and see which one works best for you.
While you’re there you might as well check out our vast library of other great software, all 100% vetted and free to download, as well as our news section for all the latest from the worlds of IT and technology.