Simple questions: What are drivers and why do you need them?

If you have used a computer, then you have probably heard about drivers. However, do you know what a driver is? Moreover, what does it do that makes it so important to a computer’s operation? Even if you have an idea of what a driver is and does, do you know the best practice when it comes to updating drivers? Is it best to keep the drivers offered by Windows or install your own drivers? These are all questions for which we give you simple and easy to understand answers, in this article:

What is a device driver and what does it do?

A device driver is a piece of software that allows your operating system to start, use and control a hardware device. In other words, drivers are the translators that enable your operating system to ask the hardware devices inside your computer or that are connected to the computer to do what the operating system wants.

For instance, imagine that you try to play a video on YouTube. You press Play on the video, in your web browser. The web browser, which is an application, sends your request to the operating system. The operating system knows then that you want to play a video. Which means, among other things, that it must buffer the video, ask the video card to display the video and ask the sound card to play the audio part of the video. The operating system sends all these requests to the drivers associated with the required device: the network card driver knows what data to transfer, the video card knows what to display, and the sound card knows what to play.

Or imagine that you have a document that you want to print on your printer. You would edit the document inside Word or any other text editor you prefer, then you would push the Print button and then you would wait for the document to be printed. The text editor is an application which asks the operating system to print the document. The operating system takes the document and asks the printer driver to print the document. The driver takes the document and translates it into a language that the printer understands. Finally, the printer prints the document and delivers it to the user.

Here is an illustration of how all that works:

All these are possible because the operating system knows how to ask those devices to do their jobs, using drivers.

Why do you need device drivers?

The answer to this question could not be any simpler: you need device drivers to be able to use your devices. Your computer needs drivers to be able to communicate with the devices that are connected to it. Without the right driver, a device is nothing more than a piece of hardware that doesn’t work. Which is probably why device drivers are called drivers. :)

Where do you find the drivers for your devices?

Usually, most drivers are installed automatically on your operating system. Windows has an extensive library of drivers. When you connect a new device to your Windows computer, the operating system automatically detects it and starts searching for an appropriate driver in its library. If one is found, all you have to do is wait for it to be installed. Sometimes, Windows also asks you to reboot your computer after the driver has been installed, so that it can be enabled and used.

If Windows does not have a fitting driver for your new device, it can also use Windows Update to search for a driver online. If Microsoft’s servers have a driver for your device, then you must wait for it to be downloaded and installed.

These are the easy options for finding and installing drivers for your devices in Windows. However, sometimes it can happen that no driver is found either in Windows’ library or on Microsoft’s Windows Update servers. If you have that “luck,” or if you want to use a special driver other than the one installed by Windows, you can also find drivers on the support website of your device’s manufacturer.

Here’s an example involving a video card we own: an AMD Radeon R9 270X made by Sapphire. The best place to get a driver for it, is the official support page of AMD. Some manufacturers, AMD included, offer a detection tool that automatically identifies and downloads the right drivers for your device. However, all manufacturers offer a way to manually choose the right driver for your device. After you identify your device and choose your operating system that you have, you can download the driver.

Drivers usually come in the form of an executable file which you must run and install like you would any other application. But, if you need help for installing missing drivers for your devices, we have published a tutorial on the matter, which you can find here: Find missing drivers and hidden devices in Windows, with Device Manager. It provides detailed instructions for installing drivers in Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.

Why should I keep device drivers up-to-date?

Although many people think that the old saying “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” applies to drivers too, we tend to disagree. Usually, drivers are updated because the manufacturing companies found some bugs and are repairing them, because they have added new features, or because the performance of your device increases with a new version of a driver. Sometimes, driver updates can even resolve security issues.

However, there are times when new drivers are problematic also. For instance, some Nvidia drivers can cause the Start Menu to malfunction. But even so, newer drivers are better than older ones in most cases.

The good news is that if you use Windows 10, critical driver updates are automatically downloaded and installed for you. Which raises the next question:

Should I use the drivers that Windows downloads or should I install my own?

Usually, the drivers that Windows downloads and installs automatically for your devices are almost guaranteed to work well. They are drivers that have been tested to comply with Microsoft’s requirements and are usually stable, meaning that your computer is unlikely to crash because of them.

However, sometimes, the drivers delivered by Microsoft are also outdated compared to the drivers available on the support websites of your devices’ manufacturers. As we know by now, newer drivers usually offer more features and better performance for our devices.

We prefer to keep the default drivers offered by Windows for basic devices such as the network card, the printer or our webcam. However, when it comes to the drivers used by more complex devices such as our video cards, we always choose the ones offered by their manufacturers. Those drivers can increase the number of frames per second you get in games, so they are pretty important for us, as we play a lot on our computers.

How about you, do you prefer using the default drivers that are offered by Windows, or do you prefer to install your own, manually?