Ask LH: Do I Really Need To Update My Drivers?

Dear Lifehacker, I recently updated my video drivers and discovered that a lot of my other drivers were out of date. Do I really need to keep them updated all the time? Will I notice any improvements in speed or features if I have the latest versions? Sincerely, Disorganised Drivers

Photo remixed from boroboro , tele52, DVARG, Diagon (Shutterstock).

Dear Disorganised,

Drivers can be pretty confusing, and while we’ve talked about them a bit before, there are a few things everyone should know about when it comes to managing drivers. Here’s the most important stuff.

The Golden Rule of Drivers: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Before you go obsessing about up-to-date drivers, you should note that while we always recommend you keep your software updated for security and stability, drivers are another matter. While you should keep an eye on any security updates that pop up, different driver versions can introduce stability problems, so if your hardware is working as expected, you’re better off not updating, since you never know when it might cause problems. You’ll rarely get big speed or feature boosts from a driver update, so unless you see in the release notes that there’s something big, you’re usually OK to just ignore it.

Instead, only update your drivers if you’re having a problem with your hardware. Say your ethernet connection drops occasionally, or your printer isn’t printing properly. In this case, one of the first troubleshooting steps you should take is to update the driver, since these issues may be fixed in a new update.

The main exception to this rule is video drivers. Unlike other drivers, video drivers are updated often and usually with big performance increases, especially in new games. Heck, a recent Nvidia update increased Skyrim performance by 45 per cent, and the driver after that increased its performance by another 20 per cent. If you’re a Skyrim player, that’s a huge boost. So, when you see that your video card has a new driver available, see what improvements the driver offers — if it offers system-wide performance improvements or improvements in a game you’re currently playing, you’ll definitely want to update. If it doesn’t, stick with the current driver.

Where to Get Your Drivers

When you first plug in a device, Windows will often install its own generic version of the driver itself, and your device will get basic functionality right away. For some things, this is fine, but often you’ll find that downloading the driver from the manufacturer’s website gives you lots of extra features. Sound drivers may give you things like virtual surround or room correction, while video drivers will usually give you a whole control panel of options that let you customise your graphics performance, features like Nvidia’s PhysX and more. In general, there are three different places you’ll find drivers, and here’s how they differ:

  • From the chipset manufacturer’s website: This is the first place you’ll usually want to look. The chipset manufacturer is the company that designed the original video or sound chip (for example, Nvidia or Realtek). These companies often have the very latest drivers available before anyone else. Some drivers (like Nvidia’s) will come with extra features, while others (like Realtek’s) will only offer the latest generic drivers.
  • From the hardware manufacturer’s website: If you find that you have problems with the chipset manufacturer’s drivers, or that they only offer generic drivers with no extra features, your next stop should be the hardware manufacturer. This is the person who made the actual hardware, like EVGA or XFX for video cards, and companies like Gigabyte or MSI for motherboards (which often include things like sound and ethernet). If you have a laptop, you’ll want to go to your laptop manufacturer’s site instead (for example, Asus or Lenovo).
  • Directly from Windows: Windows’ generic drivers are usually the bare minimum of what you need for something to work. It isn’t ideal for most things, but in some cases — like printers — that’s exactly what you want. If you visit your printer’s website, they’ll only offer you a driver that includes a bunch of software that may include other features but not necessarily ones you’ll use. Regular printing and scanning is already built right into Windows, and you don’t need photo editors, cloud services and other junk bloating up your machine. So instead of getting drivers from the manufacturer, just get them right from Windows as described below.
  • From the CD that came with your device: You’ll almost never want to do this. These drivers are probably outdated by the time you get the computer up and running, so you should download the drivers from one of the above sources instead. The only exception: ethernet drivers, if Windows doesn’t have them built-in. Obviously, if you start up your computer and can’t access the internet, you can’t download drivers. So install the ethernet drivers from the CD, connect to the internet, and download all your other drivers online.

How to Update Your Drivers

When it comes time to update, the process is very simple. Just open up Device Manager (by clicking on the Start orb and typing “device manager” into the search box) and right-clicking on the hardware you want to update. Click Properties and go to the Driver tab. Here, you can see your current driver version. If you’re updating through Windows, click “Update Driver” to update it. If not, check the driver’s version number and head to the manufacturer’s website. If their driver number is newer than the one you have, an update is available, and you can read up on it, if necessary. Then, just download the installer from there and run it like you would any other program. When you’re done, you should have shiny new drivers ready to help you get the best out of your hardware.


PS Got any extra driver-related tips to share? favourite features you found in another version of a driver? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments.

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