To anyone but a software engineer or the most technically-inclined computer enthusiast, Windows drivers are much like the plumbing in one's residence: They typically work well — out of sight and out of mind — and consequently become taken for granted. But when one component begins to malfunction (when a "flush of the buffer" doesn't!), then it immediately become a very noticeable and critical part of one's day-to-day operating environment. Furthermore, the unavoidable job of resolving the problem usually turns out to be messy and unpleasant, and can potentially escalate into a much larger and expensive project than originally feared.
In this article, I will consider techniques that can help you get the "Windows plumbing" working again, or, better yet, avoid a crisis in the first place. I will also take a look at some of the most common sources of Windows drivers issues. But first, I should start with a brief overview of drivers and their purpose.
Command and Control
A computer driver is any piece of executable software — typically a small standalone program — that controls a device inside of or attached to your PC or its network. The devices are pieces of hardware such as keyboards, mice, hard disk drives, optical drives, and printers. Each one of these devices requires a corresponding driver program to serve as an interface between it and the operating system in question — in this case, Microsoft Windows. (Other operating systems also use device drivers.) The driver performs this role by receiving commands from the operating system and from application programs, translating those commands into specific instructions understood by the device, and sending those instructions to the device. Subsequently, the driver is informed by the device as to whether or not the command was successfully carried out, as well as the current status of the device (e.g., 'ready for more instructions'); this information is then passed back to the calling program — eether the operating system and or an application.
The majority of driver programs are created by the manufacturers of the hardware devices. The drivers are usually provided to the consumer on a CD. A decade ago (a century in "Internet time"), a diskette would serve that purpose. Now with the Internet becoming the world's main platform for disseminating company information, those drivers are also available at no charge on the manufacturers' websites. More diligent manufacturers update their driver programs whenever needed, for fixing reported bugs and improving the drivers for new operating systems or upgrades thereto. For any device in your PC, it is wise to check the website of the device manufacturer, to see if a better version of the driver is now available.
Aside from drivers offered by hardware manufacturers, other drivers are included in Windows itself — particularly for common hardware components, such as keyboards, mice, hard drives, and CD and DVD drives. With every major version of Windows, more drivers are included, and as a result do not have to be installed from the manufacturer's CD or website. Of course, if your version of Windows was released prior to the new device being made available, then that driver will not be part of Windows's extensive set of drivers.
Symptoms and Sources
Most of the time, Windows drivers operate without any problems. But if a driver file is accidentally erased or becomes corrupted, then any device relying upon that driver will most likely become unusable. Invariably this takes the form of an application attempting to use the device, and then complaining that the device does not exist or is not available. For instance, if for whatever reason your printer driver becomes unusable, and you try to print a document, then whatever application you are trying to print from will display an error message of some sort, telling you that the printer is off-line or otherwise unavailable, even though your printer is plugged into your computer properly and powered up.
Anyone suffering from a Windows driver problem could well ask, how could such an essential part of their PC become inoperable? The potential causes are just as varied and numerous as the driver programs themselves. A driver file could be damaged by a virus or other form of malware. Or part of the driver file may have resided on a sector of the hard drive that is going bad. Another source of trouble is when a computer owner tries to forcibly update an old driver with one they think is better, but that actually does not work correctly with the device in question.
Yet probably the most common source of all driver disasters is when the computer owner reformats his or her computer's boot partition, without identifying ahead of time all of the drivers used by the hardware components, and confirming that all of those drivers can be easily reinstalled from discs on hand or from the Web. This blunder occurs most frequently with a used computer that did not come with the original CDs from the drivers' manufacturers. The take-home lesson is: before you remove or wipe the boot partition of your PC, first confirm that you have all of the drivers stored on media, or that they can be downloaded from the manufacturers' websites (assuming that you will have access to a second computer with Internet access that does not depend upon any of your current devices). It would also be smart to verify that all of those drivers work — similar to the wise practice of verifying that your file and partition backups are complete and usable, in case of — and prior to — hard drive disaster.
Research and Resolution
If it appears that your PC has encountered an issue with one of its devices, first check if Windows is detecting any such problems. This can be easily accomplished using the Windows Device Manager, which can be accessed in several ways. For Windows XP, for example, begin at the Start menu, choose Settings, then Control Panel, and then the System menu item. This pops up the System Properties dialog box. Choose the Hardware tab, and then click the Device Manager button.
The Windows Device Manager displays all of the hardware devices installed on your PC. If Windows detects that any device is malfunctioning (including problems with its corresponding driver), then it will indicate this by placing a red or yellow exclamation mark next to the device's icon. (Some of these icons, as well as the menu entries mentioned earlier, could vary depending on your version of Windows.) If you have the appropriate driver for that device on available media, then double-click on the error icon, and follow the step-by-step instructions of the Windows wizard, which can search the driver CD and find the needed file(s).
On the other hand, if you do not have any driver CD from the device or PC manufacturer, then visit the company's website, where you can most likely find and download the latest version of the driver. In most cases, to find the appropriate driver, you will need to submit the details about your particular device, such as a model number or part number. This information can normally be found on a label on the device itself, or in whatever manual may have accompanied your device, if purchased on its own, or your computer.
If you know the device's manufacturer and model number, but the company does not offer online driver files, then you can search for the driver on websites that host Windows drivers and utilities. These sites include DriverGuide.com and WinDrivers.com, which provide exhaustive lists of current drivers, at no cost to you.
You can also use generic search engines, such as Google, to scour the Internet for any driver files that you might need. In addition, there are driver-specific search engines, such as DriverSearch.com.
Perhaps the most common and daunting roadblock that you might encounter when trying to find the proper driver for a device, is figuring out its manufacturer and model number. Sadly, not all hardware manufacturers clearly label the devices that they make. This is particularly true of the generic devices made in Taiwan and other Asian countries. Without knowing the identity of the manufacturer, you would not know which website to check for downloadable files. If you find yourself in this quandary, first contact the vendor of your PC, because most computer suppliers list on their websites the device manufacturers they use for parts, with links to the various companies' sites. If that approach does not work, then use a device identification utility, such as Toolkit, which is offered by the aforesaid DriverGuide.com. A paid version of the program will also automatically search for updated versions of your drivers.
If you initially experience significant challenges in trying to resolve a Windows driver problem, do not make the common mistake of giving up and replacing the entire PC just to get back on track with your computer work. In almost all instances, a driver for the problematic device is easily and freely available. As any experienced homeowner can tell you, it is usually cheaper in the long run to have broken plumbing repaired rather than completely replaced.