Drivers are needed by all computer operating systems so that they can communicate with the hardware that makes up the computer. Windows and Linux are examples of operating systems, and the hardware is anything apart from the operating system itself, including video cards, keyboards, hard drives, the mouse, DVD player and so on. Drivers, also called controllers, are simply small software programs that explain to your computer operating system how the hardware works. Imagine you buy a new video cassette recorder (if you can still find one in the shops!). When you first set it up you’ll probably have to mess around with the controls until you figure out how it works – you may even want to look at the instruction manual. This is because it won’t work exactly like the one you had before since different manufacturers have different ideas about how things should work. It’s the same with computer hardware, and the driver does for windows what the instruction book does for the human users – it tells the operating system what signal causes what function, and explains the capabilities of the hardware (like the screen resolution or how fast the cd-writer can burn).
So let’s imagine we buy a new printer. The operating system, say windows XP, isn’t going to know how that printer works because it doesn’t have the instructions. The instruction book, the driver, is usually contained on a floppy or cd-rom that comes in the box with a new printer. Often it will be bundled with all sorts of other software (probably image manipulation programs in the case of a printer), but the thing that windows can’t manage without is the printer driver that is contained on the disc. Of course Microsoft could load up every possible printer option in the world… In fact this is sort of what happens with advanced operating systems like Windows XP – when you try and add new hardware a list of possible supported manufacturers comes up for you to choose from. It’s doesn’t have drivers for every hardware manufacturer in the world, and it’s unlikely to be completely up to date. For this reason, if you have the manufacturer’s disc containing the official driver you should always use it.
What if you don’t have the disc, or you’re having problems with the piece of hardware? Well, most of the decent manufacturers have a download section on their website that contains the drivers for their hardware. Many manufacturers update their drivers on a regular basis or to deal with specific faults they hadn’t foreseen, and it’s sometimes worthwhile to update your drivers for better performance. Of course, this means a lot of searching, which is where sites that makes searching easier (like this one), come in very handy, having set out the files by device type and by manufacturer.
Drivers in XP are sometimes recognizable by a DRV extension (for example a file called mouse.drv is the generic windows mouse driver). New drivers can be added and old drivers removed reasonably easily through the Windows control panel. Driver problems are often responsible for system problems, and if the hardware isn’t working as it should, more often than not it’s a driver issue. It’s important however to use the right driver. This means knowing the brand, model, and sometimes even the serial number, for your hardware. It also means installing the correct driver for the operating system you are using – don’t try to shove a windows 2000 designed driver onto an XP system because it won’t work properly and probably will do some damage to your system. Take the time to look for the right driver, and make use of listings like this one to make the job easier.
In our next articles we’ll talk about how to install drivers once you’ve found them.