[ALERT] Should You Update Your Drivers?
Occasionally, readers ask me if they need to update their drivers. Do popups keep appearing on your screen, with warnings like 'Your drivers are out of date'? Are you getting emails or phone calls to that effect? One reader said 'I am not even sure what a driver is, but if everything seems to be working fine, do I really need to update them?' Here's the scoop on device drivers, what they are, what they do, and when to update them...
Should You Update Your Device Drivers?
Let's start by defining the term. Device drivers, more commonly called "drivers," are small programs that act as translators between your operating system and the hardware devices it uses. Every hardware device needs a driver. Your printer, scanner, mouse, keyboard, hard drive, sound card and network adapter are all examples of devices that require a software driver in order to respond to commands from the operating system.
For example, when you hit the Print button, Windows issues the generic command "print," and a device driver translates that command into the specific instructions needed by your particular make and model of printer. Device drivers are typically supplied by the hardware vendor. You've probably had the experience of purchasing a printer or mouse, and being prompted to insert a "setup CD". That disk contains the software and drivers needed to enable your device to communicate with Windows.
Windows also comes with a vast library of drivers. When Windows is installed, it scans your computer for attached devices and tries to match them with drivers from its library. Likewise, when you plug a new device into a Windows system, Windows looks for an appropriate driver in its library. If the right driver for a device is not in Windows' library, you will be prompted to supply it (typically, on a CD included with your hardware device).
Install the driver and you're done, right? Well, not always. Hardware makers do issue updated drivers occasionally. Whether you install them or not is up to you.
Let's be clear about one thing -- those popups on your screen are ads, not dire warnings from your computer's operating system. They're pushing software that scans your computer, looking for device drivers that may need to be updated. Some of these products are outright scams or malware in disguise. Others are semi-legit, but misleading. The phone calls warning about missing or outdated drivers are DEFINITELY scams. See my recent article [ALERT] Fake Tech Support Scammers Are Calling for more on that.
Do I Really Need This Driver?
Most driver updates are performance enhancers. They may fix minor but irritating glitches in previous versions. Often, these glitches are so minor that they pertain only to particular PC models and do not affect the majority of users.
Sometimes you'll need to update a device driver if you move to a newer operating system. For example, you might have a printer or scanner that worked fine under Windows XP or Windows 7. You upgrade to Windows 10, and now it doesn't work. Some other commonly reported problems are no sound, or problems with screen resolution. A quick trip to the vendor's website should help you find a driver written specifically for that device and operating system. In most cases, you will simply download and run an EXE file to install the new driver, then restart your computer. If that's not the case, look for instructions on the vendor's site.
A few driver updates patch security vulnerabilities that might enable bad guys to infiltrate your computer - if they bothered to take advantage of the vulnerabilities. It's just not worth a hacker's time to write a virus targeting the driver for one of several thousand devices. Beside, security-related driver updates generally find their way automatically onto most users' systems via Windows Update. Some devices will even update themselves directly from the vendor website.
Most people don't bother looking for driver updates unless they are having a problem with a hardware device. After all, it isn't broken, why fix it? By the way, Windows Device Manager is not a reliable indicator of whether your drivers are up to date. Device Manager tells you only whether a driver is working, not whether it's the latest and greatest version.
One "edge case" is when you need an OLDER driver for a piece of equipment. In my article HP Playing Dirty Tricks? I described a situation where my HP inkjet printer was rendered useless by an automatic update from HP. The new driver would not allow me to use third-party refilled ink cartridges, claiming they were “damaged.” I fixed the problem by rolling back that update, and installing an older driver that did not require “new and genuine HP” cartridges.
Watch Out For These Driver Update Gotchas
There are many so-called "driver updaters" or "driver boosters" available online. These programs scan your system's drivers, tell you which ones are out of date, and offer to fetch and install the latest drivers for you. Sounds neat, until you realize there's a fee for all of this. Then you may also realize that you have no way of knowing whether the drivers installed by such services are really the correct drivers, the latest ones, or even if they are malware in disguise.
If you do need an updated device driver, don't just Google the name of your device and download a new driver from the first website that pops up. Aside from Windows Update, the only trustworthy source of drivers is the support website of the hardware manufacturer.
Here's my bottom line on driver updates: If you are having an issue with a printer, scanner, mouse, keyboard or other peripheral device, look for a more recent driver on the maker's site. But updating drivers just for the sake of "keeping current" is not worth the effort, and may do more harm than good.
Do you have something to say about device drivers? Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 4 Feb 2019
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