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HTG Explains: Do You Need to Use a Driver Cleaner When Upgrading Hardware Drivers?

old graphics card 1

Some geeks use “driver cleaners” when updating their drivers — generally graphics drivers — to ensure the old driver was completely uninstalled and that no leftover files will conflict with the new driver. But is this necessary?

If you’ve ever used a driver cleaner, it was probably quite a few years ago. You shouldn’t need to run them anymore unless you encounter problems after upgrading drivers.

What is a Driver Cleaner?

Hardware drivers aren’t just self-contained pieces of software. When you install something like the NVIDIA or AMD graphics drivers, the installer leaves a variety of individual driver files all over your system.

When you uninstall the existing hardware driver, the uninstaller could fail to clean up properly and leave some of these files behind. For example, perhaps you were upgrading your NVIDIA or AMD graphics driver to the latest version. If the uninstaller failed to remove all the old driver files, you might end up with driver files from two different versions lying around. This could cause problems, as these driver files were never designed to work together. Conflicting driver files could result in crashes, slow-downs, and other glitches.

If you were worried about running into driver conflicts when upgrading, you could uninstall the driver using its standard uninstaller and then go through your system, uninstalling the hardware device and deleting the leftover driver files by hand. A driver cleaner automates this last part — after the driver is uninstalled, the driver cleaner will look for leftover files and delete them for you.

nvidia-graphics-driver-files

In The Past…

In the past, driver cleaners were much more popular utilities. There was a time when NVIDIA and ATI (now AMD) instructed their users to uninstall their existing graphics drivers before installing the new drivers.

Users uninstalled their existing graphics drivers, rebooted their Windows computers into low-resolution VGA mode, and often ran a driver cleaner to make sure the old drivers were completely removed. They then installed the new graphics drivers and rebooted Windows once again.

Drivers didn’t intelligently handle the update process — users had to run the uninstaller manually and users who never ran driver cleaners occasionally ran into problems when NVIDIA or ATI’s uninstaller failed to remove the previous driver files completely.

uninstall-graphics-driver

Today Is Different

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We live in a different world today — the process is much more automated. NVIDIA and AMD’s graphics drivers automatically check for updates. When an update is available, they’ll download the graphics drivers and update them for you right on the spot. The installer automatically uninstalls the old drivers and installs the new one without even requiring a Windows reboot. The worst you’ll see is a momentary black screen while the graphics drivers are switched over.

This update-without-rebooting process is made possible by the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) graphics driver architecture, which was introduced in Windows Vista.

nvidia-driver-update

Is It Necessary?

First of all, driver cleaners were generally only necessary for graphics drivers. Other drivers could encounter the same problems when updating, but Windows users generally just had trouble with their graphics drivers. You probably shouldn’t bother updating most of your hardware drivers anyway, but you should update your graphics drivers if you want the best PC gaming performance you can get.

Driver cleaners were only necessary because users ran into problems when installing new versions of graphics drivers. Many users fell into the habit of running a driver cleaner each time they upgraded their drivers — after uninstalling the previous version and before installing the new one — just to ensure that, after they upgraded, they wouldn’t run into any problems.

Users who didn’t do this and did run into problems had to uninstall their drivers, run the cleaner to wipe out all traces of drivers, and reinstall the drivers.

So, is running a driver cleaner necessary? Only if you’ve updated your graphics and experienced crashes or other problems. If you’re like most users, you generally upgrade your drivers when prompted and don’t notice any problems — or you may not update your graphics drivers at all, which is fine if you never play games on your PC.

Driver cleaners aren’t for you unless you run into an actual problem after updating a driver. There’s no point in running a driver cleaner just in case — if you’re still in the habit of uninstalling drivers and running a driver cleaner each time you update them, stop using the driver cleaner and save yourself some time.

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Using a Driver Cleaner

If you do want to use a driver cleaner, you could download and use something like Guru3D’s Driver Sweeper. But don’t say we didn’t warn you — you probably don’t need it. There’s a reason this program hasn’t been updated in years and doesn’t even officially support the final version of Windows 7. Given the lack of updates, we’d recommend against even running this outdated program in the first place.

One thing’s for sure — you don’t need to spend money to download a driver cleaner. It won’t fix typical PC problems or make your computer run faster, whatever scammy websites may say.

driver-sweeper


In summary, driver cleaners are largely a relic of the past. They were occasionally necessary in the past, but we’re now at a point where you shouldn’t have to run them.

Image Credit: Long Zheng on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 09/8/13

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