One of the more interesting — and occasionally, vexing — Windows 10 maintenance tasks focuses on device drivers. Simply put, a device driver is a special purpose piece of software that lets your computer (and Windows) interact with some specific hardware item. Devices that plug into a bus of some kind (think of this as a kind of highway for communication) will also need bus drivers as well as device drivers to make the connection workable and complete. There are many different sources for device drivers, and information about device drivers. My purpose today is to identify most of them, and to help you develop a sense of which sources are valuable and worth consulting.
Sources of Driver Intelligence
There are many places to go looking for drivers, and many reasons why one might undertake such a search. As an unstoppable tinkerer myself, the most important advice regarding device drivers has to be: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Though it is generally a good idea to keep current on software, device drivers are a somewhat touchy category. Unless you’re having problems with a device, or the maker of the device recommends an upgrade for performance, security, or capability reasons, you don’t really HAVE to upgrade a driver just because a new one is available.
For some people — including your humble author — this can be a hard lesson to fully learn and absorb. But after a device goes missing and may seemingly be unrecoverable (something that has happened to me many times over the years), you should learn to restrain yourself when it comes to updating or upgrading device drivers “just for fun.” If things go wrong, I can woefully assure you that “fun” will be in short supply (or altogether absent).
The Best Sources Are Official Ones
To the most conservative of Windows experts, there are really only two or three valid sources of driver updates worth considering. First is the maker of the device that needs the driver. Second is Microsoft, which regularly releases properly vetted drivers through Windows Update. The third category applies to those who buy systems from big- (and small-) name system vendors, such as Lenovo, HP, Dell, Acer, Asus, MSI and so forth. For their systems (this is especially true for laptops) they often issue customized device drivers through their own release channels (usually connected to their online support presence in some form or fashion). For many Windows users, admins, and experts these are the only valid sources for driver updates and upgrades that one should consider installing, especially on production PCs. I concur with this conservative mindset, by and large.
Other Possible Sources of Driver Intelligence
Former Novell VP Craig Burton is rumored to have said of networking standards, “The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them.” This was something of a sly dig at those who piously list “support for standards” as proof of their potency or legitimacy, because it overlooks the absolute plethora of such things for vendors and experts to choose among. When it comes to device drivers, though, there are indeed a LOT of them to consider. If you run Nir Sofer’s dandy little InstalledDriversList utility on most Windows PCs, you’ll get a total count that is usually somewhere north of 380. On the three machines I just tried for a “reality check” I saw 430, 444, and 384 devices: these were on a Lenovo X380 Yoga, a home-built PC with an i7 Skylake CPU and a Z170 mobo, and a fairly old Surface Pro 3, respectively. That’s a LOT of drivers.
Other sources of driver intelligence can be valuable because you might not hear about such things unless you kept hunting for them on a more-or-less constant basis. Thus, I’ve learned to keep my eye on certain online assets to stay apprised of important or noteworthy driver updates, over and above Microsoft Update, plus key vendor sites (for me that means Intel, AMD, Broadcom, Realtek, Synaptics, and so forth) and system maker sites (for me that means Lenovo, Dell, HP, and Microsoft). Tenforums.com is a great general source of driver intelligence, especially its Drivers and Hardware forum.
I also read over a lot of Windows-related news sites which include Thurrott.com, WindowsReport.com, MSPowerUser.com, Ghacks.net, Neowin.net, WindowsLatest.com, onmsft.com, winaero.com, thewincentral.com, and thewindowsclub.com (these are listed in their order of appearance in my two-line “Top sites” list in the Firefox web browser, because I visit them daily, if not more often than that). If I see driver intelligence in one of these places, I’ll usually research further before searching for a possible driver update. Personally, I also find the French website, Station Drivers, useful and valuable because they often come up with drivers months before they become “officially” available through other channels (remember, though: don’t grab a new driver unless you’re having problems or issues with an old or current one).
What About Driver Update Programs?
I’ve used a variety of driver update programs over the years, but I’ve learned to steer clear of them. Why? Two reasons: first, false positives (which means they sometimes recommend drivers that aren’t needed or even applicable to systems they survey); and second, false negatives (which means they sometimes miss drivers that DO need updates, possibly because of some oversight or error in their scanning and recommendation technology).
Over the long haul, I learned that driver update programs often made extra work for me, and forced me to return to the 3 “old reliables” (MS, the hardware vendor, the system vendor) anyway to get things working. This is a case where automation can be helpful, but only if it saves time and effort. Most of these packages cost upwards of US$30 per year for ongoing subscriptions. Based on my own hard-won and -earned experience (and money) I’ve learned to do better and more without them. If you have to use a driver update program, use a free one (anybody can charge you for work you may end up having to do yourself, but why spend the money if you don’t have to?)
Be careful and conservative about updating drives. If you must update them, make an image backup (and have bootable restore media ready) before you start messing around. ‘Nuff said.
Author: Ed Tittel
Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran. He’s a Princeton and multiple University of Texas graduate who’s worked in IT since 1981 when he started his first programming job. Over the past three decades he’s also worked as a manager, technical evangelist, consultant, trainer, and an expert witness. See his professional bio for all the details.