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HTG Explains: When Do You Need to Update Your Drivers?

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Talk to any tech person, read any forum, and at some point you’re sure to be told to update your drivers… but what does that really mean? And is it necessary to compulsively update your drivers? Here’s our take.

Drivers? What Are Drivers?

In very simple terms, drivers are computer programs that let Windows and your other applications interact with a hardware device. Your computer doesn’t natively know how to use all the features of your video card—it needs a driver to do that. Just like computer programs have updates and service packs to fix bugs and add features, drivers do as well.

When Should You Update Your Drivers?

Rule: Don’t fix what isn’t broken.

If you’ve got a problem with a device, you should think about upgrading the drivers. If you’re looking for a speed boost, updating your drivers to the latest version isn’t a magical speed enhancement that will suddenly remove the need to upgrade a slow PC. If you’re upgrading from one version of a driver to another version, chances are good that the only things included in those updates are bug fixes for specific scenarios, and maybe some very minor performance increases. There’s more chance of breaking something than anything else, so if everything on your PC is working just fine, you can skip the driver updates for the most part.

There’s a notable exception to this rule, of course. If you’re trying to eke out every tiny bit of performance out of your system, you should make sure that your video card drivers are updated using the manufacturer’s drivers, and you probably want to upgrade your chipset, networking, and sound card drivers as well. Switching from the built-in Windows drivers for your video card to the official NVidia or ATI/AMD drivers will make a world of difference, and keeping them updated can yield huge speed gains.

Essentially, if you’ve got an AMD/ATI or NVidia video card, and you’re using the built-in Windows drivers, that’s a great time to switch drivers. Otherwise, most people can skip the process entirely.

Which Drivers Should You Update?

Rule: Use the right drivers, not just the latest ones.

When you first get a new PC, reload Windows on an old PC, or build a new PC, you’re going to want to make sure that you are using the correct drivers. It’s not so much that you’ll need to keep the drivers updated to the very latest version all the time, it’s that you don’t want to be using some generic driver when you could be using the real driver. For instance: video card drivers included in Windows rarely include all the features of the drivers you can download from NVidia or AMD/ATI, and they definitely don’t include the same speed enhancements.

Whatever you do, don’t use some driver update software when you can manually pick the right drivers easily.

Off the Shelf PC

If you’re running an off-the-shelf PC or laptop and haven’t reloaded Windows manually, chances are good that most of your drivers are already using the manufacturer’s approved drivers. This includes things like chipset, motherboard, sound card, and the like. There’s also a really good chance that you have some onboard generic video card. Your best bet is to upgrade your video card drivers by heading to the manufacturer’s site, though you could just use the Upgrade driver feature built into Windows and explained below.

Again, if everything is working just fine on your PC, you should probably leave your drivers alone.

Fresh Windows Install / Built Your Own PC / Gamer

If you either built your own PC or loaded a fresh version of Windows, you’re currently using the Microsoft-approved drivers included in Windows, which aren’t always going to be the fastest choice, especially if you have a real video card. This is a scenario in which you’ll want to update these drivers:

  • Video Card: The difference in speed between the generic Windows drivers for your video card and the official NVidia or ATI/AMDdrivers will surprise you. Even if you aren’t a gamer, make sure you have the real drivers.
  • Motherboard/Chipset: you’ll want to make sure to head to the manufacturer’s site and grab their chipset drivers. If you bought a PC, head to their site, if you built one, go to the motherboard manufacturer’s site. Every installer is different, but in general, you can just run the downloaded driver.
  • Sound Card:the native Windows drivers won’t include all the extra sound features like virtual surround, etc. If you bought a PC, head to their site, if you built one, either go to the motherboard manufacturer’s site for onboard sound, or the sound card manufacturer’s web site otherwise.
  • Network Card: most likely you’re using some type of onboard card that’s part of the motherboard, and you already grabbed the drivers from there.

If you’re a gamer, you’ll probably want to make sure to keep your video card drivers updated regularly.

Checking Your Driver Versions

When you’re having problems with a device, it can be very helpful to know what version of the driver you’re using, especially if you’re posting on a forum, or reading a thread somewhere about a problem that was fixed in a particular driver update.

To check the driver version, just open up Device Manager using the Start Menu search box, find the driver in the list, right-click and choose Properties. You’ll be able to see the version information and date on the Driver tab. You can also update, roll back, disable, or uninstall a driver from this view, which comes in very handy if you upgraded your drivers and introduced a problem.

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Updating Your Drivers the (Safe) Microsoft Way

If you are having a problem with a particular device, you can quickly upgrade to a newer version by opening Device Manager, right-clicking on the device, and choosing Update Driver Software.

This will pop up a wizard that lets you either search Windows Update or your PC for the latest drivers—or you can manually install the drivers by using the Browse option.

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If you let Windows automatically update, it’ll install right away and ask you to reboot. If it fixes your problem, great—if not, you can always roll back the driver.

Updating Your Drivers with the Manufacturer Drivers

For the most part, when you download drivers from somewhere like NVidia or AMD/ATI, they will have an entire driver installation wizard included in the download, so you’ll just run that to upgrade the drivers to the latest version. If you happen to find a driver (perhaps for a device that is giving you an error) that is in a zip file, you can use the wizard screen above and choose the Browse option. This will show a window like this, where you can specify the folder that you unzipped the drivers to.

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Final thought: If your computer is working fine, don’t use this article as a reason to go break it. Or at least, don’t blame us if you do =)

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 11/21/11

Comments (16)

  1. indianacarnie

    Great article. And a very good point about not fixing things that aren’t broken. *Blush* Speaking from experience there :)

  2. Cirric

    The newest drivers can cause problems, as you point out. I like “Return to Castle Wolfenstein” for example. Update to the latest Catalyst driver causes RTCW to not work.

  3. Jane

    This article was very helpful. I just wanted to know if anyone can help me with a problem I am having. Well, among several other problems, whenever I try to update or add a device I get an error message saying “driver installation module has stopped working and will close”. I don’t remember exactly when this started happening but it is frustrating me extremely and to top it off my “new” vista pc does not have the1 time only download for a factory reset disk

  4. gewrecker

    Inherited a Dell Inspiron 1505E laptop where the XP version OS was replaced with a Windows 7 version OS. Network card shows to be functioning, but when direct connected to a network, is not functional. I have updated the network card driver, but that has not help. Would the root of this problem be in the Windows 7 install? Suggests to an easy fix other than a total reinstall??

    GEWrecker

  5. Hillmi

    How about a guide to get the correct drivers for an unknown device?
    I used driver updating software or cpu-z to identify the device and then I would download and install it manually.

  6. Rick S

    Was I ever lucky, I updated the drivers on three computers and everything was fine. They say God looks after drunks and fools so it must be true. lol. Now I know better. Thanks.

  7. Terry B

    I currently use a program called Raxco PerfectUpdater. It will check all of your drivers to ensure they’re up to date on a scheduled or daily basis.

    I found it to be well worth the money. It backs up the existing driver should you have to recover, then installs the updated driver.

  8. Dennis

    Until recently I always updated to the newest driver for my ATI Radeon 5870. A couple of updates ago the updated driver caused the screen to flicker, particularly in Civilization 5, whenever there was a an option to select something. The next update didn’t change things. I ruled out component failure because all of the parts were new as of 13 months ago.

    I went to AMD/ATI’s site and found that they had their older drivers available. Uninstalling the current one and installing a version from Spring of this year fixed the problem.

    Your advice is sound; if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it.

  9. David

    Absolutely- leave it alone if there’s no problem.

    Laptops: beware, don’t get generic drivers – or even the manufacturer’s drivers- for some hardware, often especially the graphics card, as these may be tailored for your machine. But with time, the manufacturer’s site does get left behind the latest version available. However, updating may add absolutely nothing perceptible.

    On the other hand, Driver Max has proven reliable when I’ve tried it.

    Some Windows ‘problems and reports’ may prompt you to update e.g. a video card driver. But I’ve found that may not be the issue, or there may not be an update available.

  10. Cajun Joe

    Microsoft Vista is constantly trying to “Update” my Network Drivers and Audio Drivers on my TOSHIBA Satellite Laptop. I fell into the TRAP and then I was on my own to “FIX” my problem. It is often days between ReBoots and by then you don’t even remember that little checkbox.

    ” MICROSOFT …….. BREAKING COMPUTERS SINCE D.O.S.

  11. Susan

    I had a new Lite On DVD/CD Rom tray installed on my computer and the hardware icon on my task bar often shows that it is installing device driver software (ATA device). Then I get a pop-up showing the driver software was not successfully installed. Several times a week this seems to occur. Since having the new DVD tray installed I’m also having problems with sporadic computer shut-downs…..everything goes black and nothing will function. I have to reboot and when everything comes back up I notice the hardware icon saying it is installing device driver software AGAIN! Is this device driver problem the likely cause of the sporadic shutdowns? Windows update tells me everything is up to date.I’m not sure what I must do to get to the manufacturers website to find a driver that will successfully work. All I know is it is a Lite-on Sata Drive device. Do I just google search for SATA drives? I sent an email to the Lite-on company and got no replies or help from them. I’m an amateur as far as computer terminology goes. Pulling my hair out over thses sporadic shut-down episodes.

  12. Liz

    Everest is an awesome little program that gives you the best idea of what you have and what you need.

  13. crab

    On the other hand, updated ATI catalyst drivers mean I can watch Flash video again without bluescreening. The mistake there was probably updating Flash.

  14. dima

    I only update my video drivers regularly. I don’t update anything else unless there is a problem

  15. rnncdn

    Could you also do an article on updating BIOS? Every time I’ve tried to I backed off at the caution signs, as I’m really not sure what to do if my update results in GSOD.
    Thanks

  16. Marlene Hibbard

    This is so helpful , I’m glad I signed up for this newsletter.
    Thanks a bunch.

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