In other words, it allows Windows to recognize and work with the hardware in your computer. Windows itself incorporates some basic drivers for things like mice and keyboards but most are created by the manufacturer of the specific hardware device.
Drivers are required for integral devices like graphics cards, sound cards, wireless adapters and network (wired/LAN) adapters but are also needed for external hardware like printers, webcams and scanners.
How To Tell What Drivers Are Installed? The Windows Device Manager can show you those installed on your computer. To access Device Manager:
- Click Start then right click on (My) Computer and click on Manage to open the Computer Management window.
- Look under System Tools and click on Device Manager to display a list in the right panel of all the hardware in your computer.
- To see what driver is installed for e.g. the graphics (display) adapter double click on the Display Adapters item to reveal the name of your graphics card below.
- Double click on the name of the graphics card to open its Properties window.
- The Properties window opens at the General tab – the Device Status text box should state that ‘This device is working properly’.
- Click on the Driver tab – you will now see the Date of the driver installed and the Version number. It also shows the Driver Provider i.e. the manufacturer of the hardware who also provides the driver – if it says ‘Microsoft’ it is a generic driver included in Windows.
- Clicking Cancel will close the Properties window and return to Device Manager.
What If A Driver Is Missing Or Corrupt? If it is missing or corrupt, the hardware device will not work.
In Device Manager the hardware in question e.g. the Display Adapter would have a yellow question mark beside it and when you open its Properties window (at the General tab), the Device Status text box will state that the driver could not be loaded or is not working/could not be configured correctly etc. (there may also be an error code).
This is a common problem if you have just reinstalled Windows and find that, for example, the sound or network adapters do not work – it is because there are no drivers installed for them. To fix this problem you will need to install the correct ones. An update will also correct most of the common error codes in Device Manager.
Do I Need To Update Drivers If They Are Already Installed Properly? If it is already installed and the associated hardware has been working fine for some time then it is not absolutely necessary to update it – there is a certain truth in the maxim ‘if it ain’t broke…’
However, updating a driver is often a useful first step in troubleshooting any hardware related issue in Windows. Also, updates are often released to fix an issue with how Windows works with a piece of hardware or to enable new features for it.
Therefore, even if your hardware appears to be working fine now, we normally recommend updating drivers as a preemptive measure – to ensure that you don’t have issues in the future, especially if the Date of your existing one is already more than a year old.
How Do I Install Or Update Drivers? If you have a 32-bit version of Windows you must install 32-bit versions. If you have a 64-bit version of Windows, you must install 64-bit versions. To check which version you have see our article on how to check your version.
There are several ways to install or update drivers:
1. The easiest and best way is to download the latest software directly from the website of the provider that you noted in Device Manager above (e.g. nvidia, Realtek). You will usually find the relevant software listed under the Support or Drivers section of their website but you may have to search a bit to find it. Make sure you download the correct software for your version of Windows. Most downloads are integrated with software that can automatically install the driver for you – once downloaded you just run the installation program and it will install it.
2. Use a program like Driver Identifier to find and update drivers automatically. It scans the hardware in (and connected to) your computer and uses its database of drivers from major manufacturers to display an online report providing links to the download locations of newer versions.
3. Or try to find updated software from the website of your computer manufacturer (e.g. Dell, Sony) – but note that the software maintained here are often not kept up to date beyond a year or so after the computer was sold – but they may still be newer than your existing drivers… Make sure you download the correct software for your version of Windows and for your particular make/model of computer. Again, most downloads are integrated with software that can automatically install it for you.
4. As a last resort, you can use Windows Update to search for hardware updates – they will be classed as optional updates rather than the usual critical/important updates. Select the ones you want and they will be downloaded and then installed automatically.
Warning: sometimes Windows Update gets it wrong and installs the wrong driver for your hardware which may then not work – if it wasn’t working before anyway then the risk is fair enough but we would not recommend using Windows Update to update old working drivers – better to have old drivers that work than new drivers that don’t!
What If The Updated Driver Causes A Problem? Very occasionally an updated driver may cause a problem – e.g. it doesn’t install properly.
In Device Manager it may show up as a yellow exclamation mark next to the device and the driver may not be loaded (Device Status box contains an error) so the hardware device stops working. Fortunately there is an easy way of fixing this:
Go to the Driver tab in the Properties window of the hardware device in Device Manager and click on the ‘Roll Back Driver’ button – this will uninstall the faulty updated driver and revert back to the original working driver – you may need to restart the computer but when it restarts all should be back to how it was before the update.