Keep Windows Drivers Up to Date


With the help of an inexpensive online tool, ensure your clients' PCs are running as efficiently as possible


In this Recipe, I'll show you how to use online driver-update sites to ensure that your clients' PCs are running the latest and greatest Windows drivers.

Software drivers are critical, and it's well worthwhile to schedule a review of your clients' PC driver status once or twice a year. You should then install new drivers carefully to keep your clients' systems running as efficiently as possible. This is particularly noticeable for graphics cards and disk controllers; higher driver speeds can produce noticeable boosts to PC performance.

This is particularly true when hardware components are newer than the OS they serve, a common situation nowadays. When that's the case, drivers bundled with the OS installation media or on driver media included with the system probably don't offer the latest, greatest relevant drivers.

Although Microsoft's Windows Update can investigate and report on known driver updates, its driver databases may considerably lag updates from equipment manufacturers and online driver-tracking services.

System builders who provide installation, maintenance, or troubleshooting services should find driver-update sites extremely helpful. These sites take the drudgery out of checking driver status on a per-driver or per-device basis, which often also requires additional searches to identify driver-download links. Instead, you can use update sites to perform a total system scan and report on all drivers, in one single, comprehensive sweep. These services charge minimal fees yet they can save considerable time and effort. That's why their investment payback is normally both quick and relatively painless.

Ingredients

To follow this recipe, you'll need the following ingredients:

  • One or more Windows PCs.

  • Internet access for each PC you wish to scan.

  • Internet Explorer (version 5.0 or later) on each PC you wish to update. IE is required so that the Driver Detective and WebXScan ActiveX control can do their jobs properly. For this Recipe, I used a post-SP2 version of IE 6.0 on my XP machines, and an up-to-date version of 6.0 on my Win2000 machines.

Be Prepared

Before we get started, here's an important warning: Whenever you replace old drivers, always be prepared to roll back any and all changes. New drivers usually improve system performance and make advanced features available to users. But they can also cause systems to become unstable or even crash. If and when that happens, you must be ready and able to restore the system to its previous setup.

Microsoft publishes a list of drivers, but it reports only on those drivers that have passed its stringent compatibility tests. So if a driver is on Microsoft's list, it's safe. However, many of the latest, greatest drivers from some manufacturers and download sites aren't subjected to Microsoft's tests. This means that some otherwise attractive drivers are not Microsoft-approved; they could be risky, or they could be perfectly safe. Either way, the key is not to avoid these drivers, but to always be prepared to roll them back if and when necessary.

For example, while researching this Recipe, after I installed the newest drivers for a graphics adapter on one machine, the system manifested the dreaded Blue Screen of Death on reboot. (In fact, this was my first experience of this phenomenon in the more than three years I've been running Windows XP, starting with RC1 in the summer of 2001.) A quick trip to the Safe Boot menu (to activate, hold down the F8 key as the system boots into Windows), followed by selection of the Last Known Good Configuration (LKGC) option, restored that system to working order. But even then, some additional cleanup was needed to complete my rollback maneuvers: I returned to a restore point that preceded the failed driver install to remove all traces of the incompatible driver.
Here's how to be safe: Before you install any new driver on a Windows XP systems, use the System Restore utility to create a restore point. To do this, go to Start, Help and Support, then click on the System Restore entry under "Pick a Task." Then click "Create a Restore Point" in the opening System Restore screen.

Also, always install only one driver at a time, then check your results before proceeding to the next driver. That way, if you have a problem, you'll always be able to identify which driver caused it. If you load more than one driver at a time and have a problem, you'll have a much harder time identifying the culprit.

For versions of Windows other than XP, use ntbackup.exe to create a system backup before installing drivers. Be sure to capture system state data, as well as the contents of the boot and system drives; that way, you'll be able to return to where you started if necessary. Then try the drivers one at a time as described above.

Seven Steps To Updating Drivers

For this Recipe, I turned to the well-known Drivers Headquarters site to provide an analysis tool. This tool, called ActiveX Driver Detective, can survey all drivers currently installed on a PC, then compare those drivers against a list of offerings currently available from manufacturers and other software developers. Joining the site costs just $29.95 (a one-time fee), and that allows you to perform an unlimited number of driver scans using the site's ActiveX Driver Detective software. The site also offers pointers to downloads when its database includes entries for newer replacement drivers.

Regardless of the machine and software you're working on, the general steps and methods remain the same. Just be sure to adapt this Recipe to whatever Driver Detective finds on the machine. That's said, let's begin.

Step 1: Launch the machine's Web browser and visit Drivers Headquarters. If you choose not to join the site as a member, click the "Free Scan for Updates..." link, or the Driver Detective button in the middle of the page. But unless you join the site, you won't be able to download drivers and thus won't be able to follow Steps 5 and later in this recipe.

Step 2: The computer will probably inform you that the page is seeking to install an ActiveX control named WebXscan. For the survey to proceed, you must grant permission. So click "yes" in the pop-up dialog. You may also need to turn off or temporarily disable all pop-up blockers, because the survey report appears in a pop-up window. The WinXP SP2 version of IE6.x asks for permission to open the pop-up, which you should grant; other third-party pop-up blockers may do likewise.

Step 3: The scan results appear in a two-part Web page report. At the top of the page, the ratio of correct to outdated ("wrong") drivers installed is shown. Here's how it looked on my system:


Lower on the page, details about individual devices appear. Drivers are labeled either "GOOD" in black or "BAD" in red. This makes it easy to determine when newer drivers are available for download, and equally easy to download them one at a time. I recommend that you print this page to capture a complete picture of what's in need of potential update. Here's a screen-shot of a sample scan report:


(Note: Because results vary from machine to machine according to the devices installed and the currency of their drivers, these screen shots will likely differ from what your browser reports to you. In other words, use what you see here for guidance, not as an unalterable prescription.)

Step 4: If you haven't already created a System Restore point (Windows XP machines) or performed a backup recently (other Windows systems), now's the time to do so. I'll leave this exercise to you, since it's not the focus of my Recipe. But I have included pointers to detailed instructions or documentation on how to complete these tasks in an Additional Resources sidebar at the end of this Recipe.

Step 5: Return to the scan results Web page. (If necessary, repeat the scan, as in steps 1-3.) Select a device for which a new driver is available. Then click its download link to the left of a driver marked "BAD." This calls a pop-up page that displays details about the related driver, including the date and version for the driver installed on the scanned PC, and also for the latest driver available.

Next, click on the Location 1 link to download the new driver. When the download dialog box opened, I found it helpful to set up a special folder on disk (in the Drivers folder) named DriverHQ-yymmdd, where yy was the two-digit year (05), mm the two-digit month (01), and dd the two-digit day (25). This makes the drivers easy to find and identify later. You may also want to make notes on which files relate to which drivers or devices. These relationships are not always obvious later on when you get into testing new drivers one at a time.

Finally, click the "Back to Results" button at the bottom of the page. This will return you to the Scan Report page. Either continue this activity to download all marked drivers, or proceed directly to Step 6.

Step 6: First, close all applications. Then open Windows Explorer. You can access this through either the My Computer button on the Start menu, or by typing explorer.exe in the Open: textbox for the Run command; it's accessible by clicking Run from the initial Start menu. Next, navigate to the directory where you saved your most recent driver downloads. Double-click the driver file of choice to try it out. Use your notes, if necessary, to determine which file relates to which driver or device.

When you've finished one driver install, reboot the system. As described above, be prepared to recover from system problems or failures if necessary. If no problems appear, continue adding drivers one at a time, then reboot after each, until you've installed all the drivers. If a driver causes problems, roll back the system and do not re-install the driver. The safest next move is to delete any problematic drivers from your hard drive; this will prevent you from trying to install it again in the future.

Step 7: Time to check your work. Fire up IE, return to the Drivers HQ home page, and repeat the Driver Detective scan. For all the drivers you replaced, it should show a change in status from "BAD" to "GOOD." You may want to print these final scan results. They will give you a snapshot of the state you leave each PC in after updating the drivers. Then file this snapshot with the rest of your records for each system.

In principle, that's all there is to it. In practice, the process takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour for each PC. The upper time range is typical for systems in which 60% or more of the drivers are marked "BAD" by Driver Detective.

Once you've finished, you may want to create another restore point or backup, so that you can return to this state in the future should you wish. From this point forward, however, you can count on less work to do, as long as you repeat your driver scan-and-replace operations on a reasonably regular basis. I do mine twice a year, and that seems to work pretty well!


Sidebar: ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

I.) From Microsoft

II.) Other Windows Driver Resource Sites

  • WinDrivers.com: Checks BIOS, provides DLL (dynamic link library) information, and more. Fee: $29.95 a year or $4.95 a day.

  • Winfiles.com: Provides copious information on Windows files and drivers. Free, but no scanning service.

  • The Software Patch: Organized by manufacturer, and offers lots of choices. Free, but no scanning service.

  • DriverGuide: You'll find lots of helpful tutorials and explanations here, plus drivers. It's free, though licensing the scanning software costs $19.99 and requires downloading the site's DriverGuide Toolkit software, which is free to use for the first two days following download.



Ed Tittel is a writer and trainer in Austin, TX, who specializes in Windows and security topics. His latest book is The PC Magazine Guide to Fighting Spyware, Adware, and Malware.

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