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112. A primer on driver files

By Andrew D. Wright

Of all the different factors that control how well your computer runs, one of the more critical and often overlooked are driver files.

A driver file is made up of the instructions and information that an operating system needs to use a particular device on the computer. Drivers are specific to both the operating system and the model and make of the computer hardware.

When you plug in a new device to your computer a window will come up to tell you that the computer is searching for drivers for the device. Many devices will have an installation disk that may contain drivers for similar models of the device from the same manufacturer written for various operating systems.

Most recent driver installation programs will automatically put the correct driver in place. Some installation disks will simply have a Drivers folder and it is up to the user to pick the correct one.

If you are running Windows as your operating system, it is important you know which version you are running so you install the correct drivers. An easy way to do this is to open up a command prompt in Windows (under All Programs - Accessories in Windows XP) and type in: ver then hit Enter.

You also need to know the model number of the device (from the box it came in or written on the device itself) if you have to pick the driver for your device from a list yourself.

Drivers are one of the most complex and hard to write pieces of software for a computer. Much of the instability of Windows 95/98/ME computers came from the device drivers not playing nice. On those versions of Windows drivers could over-write common files used by other devices and cause system halts for a number of reasons.

Though much rarer in Windows 2000/XP (which use an improved driver writing model first introduced in Windows 98), system halts from driver errors can still occur. This usually manifests as the famous Blue Screen of Death (or BSOD as it is usually written). The screen is all blue with white lettering saying the system has been halted and the cause.

Driver errors can cause greater problems than system shutdowns or strange behavior from programs. Vulnerabilities are sometimes found that allow attackers to compromise a computer, as happened in summer 2006 with drivers for many wireless network adapters found to be exploitable.

Drivers are usually identified by a version number. The higher the number, the more recent the driver. Drivers can be re-written for a number of reasons such as implementing a new feature, fixing errors in code or closing security holes.

Purchasers of proprietary computers such as Dell or Gateway would check for driver updates for their computers on the maker's website first. For other devices, check the device maker's website.

Drivers for multimedia devices such as video and sound cards are usually frequently updated, some monthly. Device drivers for network cards, modems and wifi adapters are all important to keep updated for better security and performance gains.


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Originally published 15 July 2007


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