The key to Windows success? It's all about the drivers

The key to Windows success? It's all about the drivers

Summary: The great advantage of the Windows ecosystem is that there are so many choices. That's also its biggest problem, as all those choices offer a correspondingly large chance of encountering problems from the unexpected interaction of parts that weren't designed to be used together. Problems in the Windows ecosystem get magnified during periods of transition. And the way the OEM business model works explains why some customers struggle with outdated drivers and performance problems even when a solution has been available for months.

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The greatest advantage of the Windows ecosystem is that there are so many choices.

The biggest problem with the Windows ecosystem is that there are so many choices.

Ironic, isn't it?

The sheer number of choices means you can almost certainly find exactly the PC you want. In the notebook category alone, you can get a two-pound ultraportable or a 20-pound desktop replacement, or anything in between, with or without Tablet or touchscreen features. You can opt for a system with a battery life of 6-8 hours or one that will run like a bat out of hell for 80 minutes. If you prefer a desktop, you can take your pick of giant towers, midsize towers, small form factor cases designed to fit in AV equipment racks, or all-in one designs, with a dizzying range of expansion options. For a Windows PC, you can spend $500, $5000, or anything in between.

All those choices give you a practically infinite number of hardware and software combinations. And that's where the problems begin. All those choices also offer a correspondingly large chance of encountering problems from the unexpected interaction of parts that weren't designed to be used together.

That, in large part, is why Windows Vista has struggled for the past 18 months.

The good news is that the ecosystem has finally settled down, and stable Vista drivers are now available for virtually all of the components that go into a 2008-vintage PC. But getting those drivers to users is still a problem, because of the way the OEM business model works. Understanding this process goes a long way to explaining why there's no such thing as a universal Windows experience. Here's the broad outline of how a Windows PC comes to life for a consumer:

  1. OEM engineers design the system using mostly off-the-shelf parts and standard components. Some of those parts are universal: you need a CPU and matching chipset, plus video and audio subsystems, networking capability, and a storage controller. The desire to keep prices down creates a powerful economic interest to consolidate as many of those functions as possible on the motherboard, especially for notebooks and budget desktops.
  2. OEM engineers create a hardware package for all those parts. For desktops, this used to be a beige box. Today, there's more attention to design and the beige box is mostly a relic. Notebook designers have to pay excruciating attention to detail to find the right balance of cost, weight, performance, ruggedness, battery life, and coolness.
  3. Software engineers combine the operating system, hardware drivers, and utilities (plus system firmware) into a system image. The choice that most people will notice is the operating system, but getting the right drivers and associated utilities for the components chosen in Step 1 is far more important in terms of getting a system that works well. Drivers for some components are part of the base OS. In other cases, drivers and associated utilities are provided by the supplier of the component. For example, many motherboard designs (desktop and notebook) use audio circuitry from IDT (formerly SigmaTel), which in turn provides a driver as part of its deal with the system maker. Graphics subsystems are most likely to use chips from Intel, Nvidia, or ATI, which provide drivers designed for use with that specific chip.
  4. Marketing adds branding and additional software and services. The branding involves putting the company logo and support contact information on the Windows Welcome screen and possibly adding some custom wallpaper or screen savers. The additional software in this step consists of fully functional, fully licensed programs (purchased from third parties or developed in-house) and intended to add value to the system. Common add-ons in this category are CD/DVD burning programs and DVD players. For build-to-order products, the customer might be offered a choice of products to preinstall at discounted OEM prices. Microsoft Office and various antivirus programs are the most popular examples of this category.
  5. Marketing adds trialware. The developers of these programs pay a fee for each installed copy and may also pay a spiff (commission) for each user that pays to convert the trialware program to a fully licensed copy. If the OEM goes overboard, these programs earn the label "crapware."
  6. The OEM sells the finished product to consumers. If the finished product is sold through the retail channel (Best Buy, Costco, any of a gazillion mail-order vendors), the software image on the finished system may be many months old. For a build-to-order product from a company like Dell, the software image is far more likely to be up to date.
  7. The OEM provides updated drivers and utilities to customers. Remember, many of the component suppliers want nothing to do with end-user support. If they produce a new, improved driver or utility package, they make it available to the OEM, which in turn gets to decide when and how to deliver it to customers.

Continued: Where PC makers go wrong -->

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Most people think step 5 is where OEMs go wrong. Yes, an OEM that gets aggressive with its crapware bundling can produce a PC with a miserable out-of-box experience. But long term, I think the weak links are in steps 3 and 7, where the OEM decides which drivers to use initially and which ones to make available as updates. Outdated drivers are a special point of pain during major transitions in the Windows platform, such as the move to Windows Vista/Server 2008 over the past 18 months. The trainsition in 2001 and 2002, when Windows XP introduced a major change in driver models, was also particularly painful, although that memory seems to have vanished from the collective consciousness lately.

So why are OEM-supplied drivers a problem for consumers? Because that's where OEMs are likely to try to cut costs, especially if they have a large number of products to support. If they feel the original driver they shipped for a system component is good enough, they might ignore updates from the supplier of that component. If the outdated driver results in severe issues, they might be forced to provide an update and give it to customers who contact them for support. But in other cases the problem is merely annoying and won't trigger support calls. A flawed driver or app (or a clash between different software components that otherwise work just fine) can drag down performance and reliability. Customers who experience this sort of problem are likely to blame the operating system or third-party software, when the real culprit is a driver.

Eventually, the pool of available components is stocked almost exclusively with mature parts that have stable, working drivers for the current Windows version. That's why XP is so well loved today. It went through its awkward phase more than five years ago, and today most XP drivers just work. The Vista/Server 2008/Win7 ecosystem is approaching a similar inflection point.

But OEMs have to be conscious of the existence of the latest, best drivers and motivated to integrate them into the system images for new products, or customers wind up running last year's OS. That was the case with a new notebook I began testing this week (I'll have a full review of this otherwise excellent system later this week; for now, let's allow them to remain an anonymous example of the larger problem here.)

  • The system was a configure-to-order product, shipped in May 2008 using an Intel 945GM graphics adapter.
  • The installed video driver was dated March 30, 2007, more than a year old and, more importantly, known to be problematic with Windows Vista.
  • Intel has produced numerous updates to its Vista graphics driver for this part in the past year, the most recent of which was released in April 2008. There were other updates in February 2008, and in December 2007. Any of these Intel-supplied drivers should work just fine with my new hardware. Unfortunately, the OEM has configured this system to reject any video driver except those it supplies directly. (I can hack the Setup Information file to use the Intel drivers, but that's a laborious tweak that's beyond the skill level of all but the most determined hackers.)
  • On its support site, the system maker offers a tested, approved graphics driver update that it received from Intel in November 2007. The download package from the OEM is dated February 2008. I know from personal experience that this driver will offer significantly better performance and be less likely to cause stability problems on Windows Vista than the one that was shipped with the product. But the description of the updated driver simply says it fixes a problem with DVD playback.
  • The system maker doesn't offer automatic updates, and it hasn't made this signed driver available through Windows Update, either.

So as the proud new owner of this notebook, I'm being saddled with inferior video performance and the possibility of stability problems because the system maker is too distracted or stretched too thin to allow its engineers to make this piece of hardware work optimally.At least I know where to look for the updated driver. What is the nontechnical customer expected to do? And as a buyer, how am I supposed to know that two shiny new notebooks on display alongside one another at Best Buy, both built this month, are going to offer me very different experiences because one has stable current drivers and the other is using last year's buggy code?

If history is any guide, over the course of the next year or two, the Vista/Server 2008/Win7 family is likely to become the reliable option on new hardware compared with Windows XP, as component suppliers focus their scarce driver development resources on the newer platform and run the older program in maintenance mode.

Meanwhile, caveat emptor. I'll be providing some specific examples from two large PC makers in a follow-up later this week.

Topics: Software, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Operating Systems, Windows

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274 comments
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  • Trialware payola

    So I read Item#5 as something of curiosity in terms of who
    pays and who gets. So if Widget Mfg. installs Widgette
    software as trialware, Widgette pays Widget Mfg. a fee to get
    into the installation rotation? Then if the PC customer buys a
    Widget computer and pays for Widgette's fully license
    version, Widgette pays another fee to Widget Mfg.?
    dascha1
    • Every deal is different, but yes

      Your summary is accurate for that scenario. MacNorton pays the OEM a couple dollars per PC to preinstall a 30-day trial version of its AV software and then pays an additional commission for each customer that converts to a full-year subscription. That's one scenario. I'm sure there are multiple ways to structure these trialware deals.
      Ed Bott
      • That's the real root of the problem Mr. Bott

        by adding all those demo's , the system begins to get bloated before you install the programs you already own . The proper way of un-installing a program on windows is to first use the add/remove control , then afterwards if the system doesn't boot you search for the same program you just removed , if anything is found , you delete it . Then comes the task of going through the <REGEDIT> registry and deleting invalid keys and such ,,,

        Menial task you ask ? Heck no , not for average mo
        AdventTech67
        • That's what I like about Dell

          Last summer, purchased a Dell laptop for the 5/8 and a desktop for the kids. Both came with the usual assortment of crapware, but Dell actually included an easy, nearly 1-click method for removing all that junk (including the google toolbar and sidebar).
          bigsibling
          • That's what I like about building

            Building your own computer gives you exactly what you want, without OEM restrictions, and you can be responsible for your own computer--it's wonderful!
            dansen926
          • Well maybe ...

            Shipping a system with drivers already 3 months out of date (with some of the updates marked urgent) is not the sort of performance one would hope for from Dell.

            And as for offering, for example, 7 graphics drivers for my system tag, 6 of which are for graphics cards my system never had, and having such a poor update/download system, I have a lot of sympathy for Ed's comments - the OEM's, Dell included, could and should do a lot better.
            pstewart@...
          • What is next for Dell

            Don't look now but Dell is changing direction.
            peterjnew@...
        • That's true in some cases, but not most.

          Most trialware software is not already installed. A shortcut to the installation executable is placed on the desktop and the owner of the computer chooses whether to install the application. Novice users can delete the desktop shortcut without affecting the system as a whole. All that is lost is a little disk space; and with drive sizes today it's hardly worth the effort to delete the installation files. The problem is most novice users will launch and blindly install the trialware without stopping to consider its impact or whether they really need it. I can't tell you how many systems I've had to fix where the main problem the person was having is they had two antivirus, firewall or antispyware programs clashing with each other because the computer owner bought one product and installed a competing trialware product with the desktop icon.

          Not that I'm complaining - it's an easy fifty bucks for me when I have to clean things up for them. Long live trialware!
          Flying Pig
          • Not true with Sony

            "Most trialware software is not already installed."

            I don't know how you can make such a sweeping generalization.

            With the Sony notebooks I've looked at lately, all of the trialware was fully installed and was fully reinstalled if you used the System Recovery option to restore the system.

            On some older Dell systems, the trialware was also fully installed. I no longer see that because Dell allows me o spec systems without any trialware, installed or just offered.
            Ed Bott
          • Yes, I spoke too soon

            I suppose I shouldn't have said [i]most[/i], since almost all the computers I get asked to look at are either Dell or HP, and there are a lot of other brands out there. (It's not that I won't work on the other brands. It?s just, most people I know seem to own Dell or HP). They've been pretty good in recent years. Although I have to admit, a few years back that was definitely [i]not[/i] the case.

            Personally, I feel [i]nothing[/i] should be installed beyond the OS. Put the installation files on the computer, fine; but no pre-installations. But that's in a perfect world.
            Flying Pig
          • Gateway's just as bad - if not worse...

            About a year ago, I bought a used Gateway laptop on eBay. The OS wasn't installed but at least, it came with the recovery DVD. After about an hour or so, the system was fully reinstalled and much to my dismay there were at least 25 icons in the system tray - including at least TWO fully installed AV products - McAfee and Norton. Needless to say, I had a LOT of cleaning up to do...
            Wolfie2K3
          • Not all Gateways are problems

            Hi, Last April, a year ago, I got an FX530XV Gateway with Vista Ultimate, a 2.13 Ghz Intel processor, nad 4GB RAM. Since then I upgraded to SP1 running Windows Live OneCare the whole time. I ahve never had any trouble with it at all, or any infections. I also got it with Office Basic which gave me Outlook and Word along with Excel. The whole system has worked without any problems at all, and seems to be very well built.
            CharlesEtheridge@...
          • Dell seems to have learned their lesson

            I've set up a number of dell machines over the past couple of weeks, and I've been pretty impressed at the lack of stuff on the machine.

            The machine I set up last week had free trials from AOL and EarthLink, the Google Desktop, and the Dell "redirect your failed DNS queries to google" BHO and that was about it. I was actually surprised, because I expected it to be a total mess (two years ago when I set up the kitchen computer, I ended up wiping the machine rather than try to figure out how to get rid of all the junk).

            And this was a Dell Inspiron (one of their end-user machines) not a business machine.
            Larry Osterman
          • I can confirm that...

            In the last four months, i exchanged two of my notebooks for new Dells (a Vostro business unit and an XPS ultraportable consumer unit). On both machines, there were very few craplets, and it was easy to get rid of them by simply uninstalling. All drivers worked from the beginning, and the performance was good.

            In the meantime, i have switched to Vista 64 on the Vostro (and thus did a clean install), but the XPS is still running the Vista 32 Installation it came with, and still runs well.

            Getting rid of crapware was on top of the customer wishlist that Dell collected via it's Ideastorm Website, and obviously, they did listen. I'm convinced that other will follow.
            cgdams
          • Pleasantly surprised

            I've purchased Dells in several different product lines in the past six months (XPS desktop, XPS laptop, Inspiron, Dimension) and they've all been fairly clean. The Google stuff removes quite easily and I like the fact that I can spec no AV software (so I can install my own).
            Ed Bott
  • Translation

    Most PC vendors produce crap.
    frgough
    • Wrong

      How can you conclude that? Some do a good job, some do a poor job. As buyers, we have choices. I can and will name names of some large vendors who do an excellent job in this regard later this week.
      Ed Bott
      • It is the responsibility of a vendor

        to make sure his hardware works as advertised. If Vista
        breaks on his hardware, he has shipped you crap.

        Isn't you have have maintained all along that the blame for
        vista problems lies with the hardware manufacturers not
        providing drivers?

        Well, the PC assemblers have an equal responsibility to
        make sure they put hardware that works into their
        machines. If they don't and sell it to you anyway, they have
        sold you crap.
        frgough
        • Yes, and some do that very well

          The example I used is of a company that does a particularly bad job of it. Other companies do a superb job of keeping drivers updated.

          So what's your point?
          Ed Bott
          • He said "most"

            Rather harsh, and I'm not sure if he's right, but it doesn't contradict anything you said (most bad means some good). Indeed, if we take what you say at face value, it is a logical conclusion.
            John L. Ries