In some respects, Windows drivers are similar to the plumbing in the walls of your home. They usually work smoothly, behind the scenes, and thus are easily overlooked and forgotten. But when something goes wrong, no matter how minor, it can become a rather noticeable problem that will not go away on its own. Moreover, the process of fixing the problem can quickly become unpleasant and unforgettable (no matter how much you try later!).
Helping you to get to the point where the "Windows plumbing" is working again, will be the aim of this article. I will consider the most common symptoms and causes of these types of problems, and then focus my attention on various techniques and resources for resolving these issues with minimal time and effort.
Symptoms and Sources
Windows drivers normally operate without any difficulties. But if a driver file gets erased or corrupted, then a device relying upon that driver will likely become unusable. This normally becomes evident in the form of a program trying to use the device and then reporting that the device is not working. For example, if somehow the driver for your printer becomes unusable, and you attempt to print a document in a word processing program, that program will report an error message, informing you that the printer is off-line or unavailable, even though the printer is properly plugged into your computer and powered up.
How exactly could such essential programs on your PC become inoperable? The possible causes are just as numerous and varied as the driver programs themselves. A driver file could be damaged by a sector on your hard drive going bad, or from a virus or Trojan horse program maliciously tampering with the driver file. Windows driver problems can also result from user error, such as an individual forcibly trying to update an old driver with one they believe to be better, but that actually does not work properly with the intended device.
One of the most common sources of driver headaches is the reformatting of a computer's boot partition without saving all of the drivers that will be needed after reinstalling the operating system. This mistake is made most often with a used computer that did not come with the original diskettes and CDs from the drivers' manufacturers. So, before you clean off the boot partition of any PC, first verify that you have all of the drivers saved onto backup media, or that they are available from the manufacturer's websites, and have been proven to work.
If you suspect that a Windows PC is experiencing any sort of problem with one or more of its devices, first check if Windows itself is detecting any such problems. That can be easily done through the Windows Device Manager, which is typically accessed in one of two ways: Right-click on the My Computer icon on your Windows Desktop; select the Properties menu item; in the System Properties dialog box, select the Hardware tab; click the Device Manager button. Another method is to click the Start button, then Settings, and then Control Panel; double-click the System icon, and you will see the Hardware tab mentioned above.
The Device Manager lists all of the hardware devices installed on your computer. If Windows detects that any device is not functioning properly, then you will see a red or yellow exclamation mark next to that device's icon. (Note that some of these icons and menu entries could vary depending upon your version of Windows.) If you know the location of the driver file for that device, such as on a driver CD or diskette that came with your system, then double-click on the error icon, and follow the on-screen steps for instructing Windows as to where to find the proper driver files on the CD or diskette.
If you do not have any such driver from the device's manufacturer, then check the company's website, and you will likely be able to download the very latest version of the driver for the device in question. You may need to enter in information describing the device, such as a model number. This can usually be found on the device itself, or in the manual that may have accompanied your computer or the device itself if it had been purchased separately.
If you know the device's maker and model number, but the manufacturer does not have a website offering drivers to download, then you can search for the driver on any one of many sites devoted to Windows drivers and utilities. Among the better-known sites are WinDrivers.com and DriverGuide.com, which offer extensive databases of available drivers at no charge. The latter site offers a free trial use of their Toolkit, which identifies the drivers on your PC and searches for updated versions.
Considering that you are searching for a driver, it should come as no surprise that there are driver search engines. DriverSearch.com is devoted exclusively to searching the Internet for device drivers. Naturally, the reigning champion of search engines, Google, has a Device Drivers section in their Web Directory.
Unfortunately, you may not always know the device's manufacturer and model. As any hardware technician will attest, not all manufacturers clearly label the devices that they make. This is especially true of the more generic devices made in Taiwan and China. Since you do not know the device's manufacturer, you will not know which site to consult. In this case, you could contact the system vendor, from whom you purchased the PC, because most computer suppliers have links on their websites to those of the device manufacturers. The vendor could also probably help you determine exactly which model of the device is in your particular PC. This will be invaluable when trying to find the proper driver.
The best solution to a device driver problem is to avoid it in the first place. To that end, I strongly recommend that you create a list of the devices in use on your PC, and their corresponding drivers. Either manually or using a device-detecting utility, document the device name, manufacturer, their website, the name of the driver file, and where it is located in your backup media. That may sound like a dull chore, but it will prove far more preferable than the "excitement" of discovering that you are unable to identify the maker or model of a critical and now malfunctioning device, or do not have a backup copy of its driver files.
If you initially experience difficulties and frustration trying to fix a Windows driver problem, do not quit too soon and resort to replacing the entire device just to get your PC working again. In most cases, a driver for that device is readily and freely available. As any homeowner will tell you, it is almost always cheaper and faster to have misbehaving plumbing repaired rather than replaced.