Beware the Driver Update Scam

Category: Hardware , Software

Lately, quite a few readers have been asking me if they need to update their drivers. Do popups keep appearing on your screen, with warnings like 'Your drivers are out of date'? 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, and when to update them...

Should You Update Your Device Drivers?

Let's be clear -- those popups 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.

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, graphics card and network adapter are all examples of devices that require a software driver in order to respond to commands from the operating system.

Device Driver Update

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.

Windows 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.

Do I Really Need This Driver?

If you've determined that you absolutely need to update one or more of your device drivers, I strongly urge you to use System Restore to create a restore point first. Then if anything goes wrong, you can undo the update. It's also a good idea to make a backup of all your device drivers, in case you have a hard drive failure which requires re-installing Windows from scratch.

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 Vista. You upgrade to Windows 7, 8, or 10, and now it doesn't work. 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" 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 latest drivers, 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 particular 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.

Do you have something to say about device drivers? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Beware the Driver Update Scam"

(See all 24 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
17 Apr 2017

I am running Windows 10. A couple of areas about drivers you did not cover:

1. Occasionally a driver stops working but it goes unnoticed. However, if you look in Device Manager it is flagged as having a problem. For example, occasionally my "Intel Management Engine Interface" stops working. I find that my free "Driver Talent" program tells me when this happens. All I do then is go to Device Manager and "Uninstall" the driver and reboot. This always fixes the problem.

2. When Driver Talent DOES tell me I need an update, I again go to Device Manager. But this time I open "Properties" for the driver, click on the "Driver" tab, then click on "Update Driver", and then click on "Search automatically for updated driver software". Occasionally it does find the updated driver. Since Windows 10 itself is doing this driver replacement, I trust it to pick the correct/needed driver update.

So I don't use Driver Talent to download driver updates, just to tell me when there's a problem or a possible update.

Posted by:

17 Apr 2017

If memory serves, you've endorsed IObit's Advanced System Care utility in the past. I also trust and use this free utility in addition to their free Driver Booster utility. No doubt there are driver many driver update scams out there, but Driver Booster isn't one of them.

Posted by:

Al S
17 Apr 2017

I believe that HP is violating the law that has been in place for over 35 years, It is the Moss Magnuson act passed by congress in 1975 which allows you to use after market parts which ink Cartridges are. It applies from Autos to anything that may require replacement part or repairs by other than the Dealer or Manufacturer.

Posted by:

Jou Baur
17 Apr 2017

Personally, I use Secunia PSI, (Personal Software Inspector.)
It keeps track of the drivers on my system and lets me know if something actually does need updating and keeps most things up to date by itself.
Occasionally, it needs me to manually install an update but connects me directly to the manufacturers website itself so I don't have to search around.
I have not had any problems with it in the years of using it.

Posted by:

Jou Baur
17 Apr 2017

I forgot to mention... it's free for personal use.
They do have a business package which they'll sell you, but I don't even recall pop-ups trying to up sell me.
How cool is that?

Posted by:

17 Apr 2017

This was a very timely article for me. i just bought a new laptop and when I installed Thunderbird, I got the drivers need updating popup and of course 8 needed updates. Since the computer is brand new, I was very suspicious and did nothing. I immediately got a second popups for a repair service I was suspicious of. You have reassured me that I made the right decision about these popups - which of course required payment.

Posted by:

17 Apr 2017

@Jou Baur: I use Secunia PSI too, on two of my three PCs. You need to be aware though, that it only scans for outdated SOFTWARE, NOT outdated DRIVERS (these are two completely different classes of programs).
I've been using IOBit Driver Booster for several years and am quite happy with it's performance and have encountered no issues. Occasionally, it finds outdated drivers and says that I need to upgrade to their PAID version to get them. I just leave them alone and wait for it to update them for FREE.

Posted by:

17 Apr 2017

Upgrades... I hate 'em. When I get popups about updates I always remember the wise words :"Never change a winning team"
e.g. your printer works like you like it to work. Why "update/change" its driver ? Same for your video card and all other periferals. Many (most!) updates fon't explain what and why you should update. Same for software. If you're happy with what your program does for you : Keep it like it is.
Of course there's ONE exception and that is anti virus progs because there's always some "newcommer"...
Every time I get an invitation for an update, I try to find out WHAT's the difference between "my" version and the update. If it is not clear or the update doesn't give extra's that really NEED : bye bye update.

Posted by:

ron wanner
17 Apr 2017

Thanks to help from you & Leo (who btw told me about you ;) ) I don't feel so dumb about what to or not to do on both my phone & laptop!!!

Posted by:

Nick Iacovelli
17 Apr 2017

I been using snappy driver to update pc
i did notice on amd radion 8250 it better to use the old windows 7 driver on windows 10 if you want a higher resolution.

Posted by:

John D.
17 Apr 2017

I avoid driver updates since my Media Player PC operates fine. One of the rare times I updated the audio driver directly from the audio board manufacturer, the HDMI audio stopped working. After reverting back to the original driver all was fine again. I believe what someone else said earlier is good advice... If it isn't broken leave it alone.

Posted by:

17 Apr 2017

I've been using SlimWare's SlimDrivers (free) for the past several years. It does the best job of any of the free driver update programs I've tried. Recently, I started to use HerdProtect's anti-virus/malware scanner, and that program identifies several of the SlimWare components as PUPs. However, it's easy enough to run SlimDrivers, download and install the driver updates, then run HerdProtect and remove the PUPs. No reboots required.

Posted by:

John Reed
18 Apr 2017

For years I've relied upon PC-Matic. And, all is well with all of my computers.

Posted by:

John Reed
18 Apr 2017

With Bob's column, I'm still working on the 146% smarter part.

Posted by:

Jay R
18 Apr 2017

I have been embracing the 146% factor for sometime. I don't seem particularly brilliant. Does that mean that I started reading this wonderful newsletter when my IQ was in the single digits? Reading and hoping, and hoping and reading.

I may be IT challenged, but it's good knowing that I've got several years of Bob's newsletters filed away. Thank you, Bob!

Posted by:

Pauline McCann
18 Apr 2017

The Windows 10 update on my computer was automatically overriding the iTunes driver with its Windows equivalent, which put it at odds with my iPhone driver. As my only source of connectivity comes through my phone's wifi, this meant my computer no longer recognised the phone and I could no longer syncronise it with iTunes.
My computer technician fixed the problem. But the following day, Windows updated itself yet again and again, overrode the iTunes driver. We're waiting to see if the fix to block Windows' driver can be sustained beyond the next update, but even the tech. guy can offer no reassurance.
This loss of control is frustrating and costly to the ordinary consumer like myself.

Posted by:

18 Apr 2017

I second the position of Stuart Berg. First, not only are there any number of free driver scanners, I find that the paid versions usually or often seem to add very little more to the core task. I run one or another of these probably every two months; then check the Device Manager, then research online comments or critiques of new driver versions before updating. I try not to be the first to install any new driver (by a few months)! However, newer drivers are often helpful, especially following operating system upgrades. Many drivers were 'improved' for a year or more following Windows10 release, for example. The free softwares typically automate: telling the age of the current driver; making the prudent backups; retrieving and installing them; logging the installation; and rolling back where necessary. I would NEVER turn the softwares loose to update drivers on their own - and in this respect the free versions, which require manual intervention, are superior to the paid versions, which can be set to act independently (shivver). While driver updating is probably not for the utter newbie, it is not brain surgery, and it can be educational in itself to review the range of drivers on which the PC depends.

Posted by:

18 Apr 2017

January 17, 2014...The day I downloaded a "driver update" from..."AskBobRankin." I knew to do a System Restore but made the stupid mistake of thinking that this update from "AskBobRankin" would be OK. Big mistake. Now I type the characters for "little" but usually get "lititle", e.g. I have always been an excellent typist & speller but am frustrated with stuff like "afater" for "after" and "abuot" for "about" even when I know I typed it correctly. Not Bob's fault but mine because I *assumed* that the "update" was honest and also because I failed to use my brain & do a "System Restore." Live & learn. A Dell-assisted restore of my Windows 7 still left fragments of the "rogue" update lingering in the background.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Butch, there are no downloads hosted on the website...

Posted by:

David H
19 Apr 2017

Is it deliberate irony that the advertisement at the beginning of this article is "Install Windows 10 Driver Update"?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nope, that's algorithmic contextual ad relevancy at work. :-) And the ad may be different for each user.

Posted by:

Patrick Nealon
20 Apr 2017

Hi Bob,
Why have you stopped sending me your daily updates? I have signed up again several times since you stopped.

There's more reader feedback... See all 24 comments for this article.

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