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