Thoughts On Windows Driver Updates

I've been dealing recently with the rather messy situation involving device driver updates for Windows. The problem is this.

I've been dealing recently with the rather messy situation involving device driver updates for Windows. The problem is this. You buy a nice shiny new computer, perhaps even a laptop like I did. How do you go about keeping the various device drivers up to date?

First, do you need or want updates? A lot of people would say no - don't go chasing updates just for the sake of updating. But ironically, the newer your computer is, the more likely you are to actually need an update. The newest leading-edge devices frequently still have bugs and performance bottlenecks in their drivers. Some, such as the Wireless-N network interfaces, may even be working based on a draft standard which will have to be updated when the standard is finalized. Besides that, there may be incompatibilities found between drivers and various other bits of software, which require updates. So while you may not want to go chasing all the newest driver updates, you are likely to be forced to update from time to time.

Second, where do you get them? If you're running Vista, and you choose to use Microsoft Update (rather than the older default Windows Update), it will occasionally update device drivers, but not always. You can go to the support pages of the manufacturer of your system (Fujitsu in my case), and they generally have a "Download" page where you can look for drivers. Of course, the drivers there only get updated as often as the manufacturer sees fit, and that turns out not to be very often, and to be inconsistent. By that I mean, for example, that for my S6510, Fujitsu has driver lists for Vista and XP. The Vista list includes updated drivers for five devices, two of which have been updated more than once. The XP list shows only two updates, one each for two devices. What's the difference? Are the XP drivers better than the Vista drivers? Maybe, but that's not the only difference, and in some cases they use the same driver, and it has been updated in the Vista list and not in the XP list! Is XP being neglected by Fujitsu? Yes, I suspect that is part of the problem as well.

Last, you can go to the individual device manufacturer's web pages, and often you can get updated drivers directly from them. This is in particular true of the larger companies, like Intel, while some of the smaller or less common ones just say "get updates from your computer manufacturer". Most of the time when you find a newer driver this way, you can just download and install it, but there are a few exceptions. The Intel 965 Express drivers, for example, will not install in the "normal" way on my laptop, they complain that they are not certified for this system. But the release notes with them explain how to get the driver to load manually if you are determined to do so.

Another useful approach is to find a similar but newer computer from the same manufacturer, and see if it uses some of the same devices as yours. If it does, check the downloads page and you will often find newer drivers for it that will also work for you. I have just had some very good success doing this. First, I was unusually lucky with the purchase of this laptop, Fujitsu didn't come out with a "better" one for at least seven months after I bought it (it's really irritating to buy a new computer, and then find out it is "out of date" or has been "superseded" a week or a month later). But now they finally have a newer model, the S6520, which has a newer CPU, graphic chips and wireless network interface, but nearly everything else is the same. By carefully cross-checking configurations and devices, I got updates for five devices yesterday. The most puzzling of these was the Fujitsu Shock Sensor, for which there is a new version of the driver for the S6520, but hasn't been updated for the S6510 - even though that driver is what keeps Vista SP1 from loading automatically! Curious.

By checking all of these sources I have found and installed updates for all of the following devices in my S6510:

- Intel 965 Express Graphics (from Intel) - Intel 4965AGN Wireless Adapter (from Intel) - Intel TurboMemory (from Intel) - Marvell Gigabit Ethernet (from Marvell) - Realtek HD Audio (from Realtek) - Synaptics Touchpad (from Fujitsu S6520) - Fujitsu Shock Sensor (from Fujitsu S6520) - O2Mcro Media Slot (from Fujitsu) - Bluetooth Stack (from Fujitsu S6520) - Agere HDA Modem (from Fujitsu S6520) - SMC Infrared (from Microsoft Update) - SATA Storage Controller (from Fujitsu S6520)

The advantage of finding these updates is that it can keep your PC performing smoothly, fix some problems (whether you know about them yet or not), improve compatibility with other devices and compliance with evolving standards. The disadvantage is that if you are not careful, or if one takes you by surprise, you may end up having to "roll back" a device driver update, or to boot from the "last known good configuration", but both XP and Vista are quite good at that, so the risk of larger problems is quite small.

If anyone else has other ideas and methods of doing this, short of subscribing to one of the "driver update" services, I would love to hear about it.

jw 19/8/2008

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