The hunt for drivers

How to find Windows Vista drivers for all your hardware

By John Swenson

What's the first thing many grizzled computer veterans think about when they get ready to install a new version of Windows? Drivers, of course. They remember the "old days" before Windows XP, when the ability to hunt down new drivers was an essential skill for any techie worth his or her motherboard.

Because hardware manufacturers usually must update their drivers for each new version of Windows, the release of Windows Vista has spawned some inevitable questions: Are new drivers available yet for all my hardware and devices? Will I have to go searching for drivers on the web?

Back in the day…

When Windows 95 was released, drivers were a real headache. Plug and Play technology was supposed to automate installation of device drivers, but it didn't always work and was derided by some as "plug and pray." Locating drivers was tough. There were no manufacturer websites to check, so you needed a driver disk from the manufacturer.

Welcome to the 21st century

Fortunately, finding drivers isn't the chore it once was. When Microsoft released Windows XP in 2001, it also introduced Windows Update, a website for finding and installing important software and driver updates. With Windows Vista, Microsoft has simplified the process of finding and installing drivers even more.

Windows Update is now a fully integrated part of Windows, and Microsoft has worked with hardware manufacturers to make sure plenty of new drivers are available. More than 31,000 updated drivers were ready when Windows Vista was completed—far more than the 12,000 that were available at the completion of Windows XP—and more are becoming available every day through Windows Update.

In many cases, you don't even need Windows Update to install new devices. Often when you plug in a new device or install a new add-on card in your computer, Windows Vista will detect the hardware and automatically install the correct driver in less than a minute. A notification lets you know when installation begins and when it's complete. You don't have to do anything.

Picture of notification that Windows is installing a new driver
When Windows detects new hardware, it automatically attempts to install the correct driver for the device

Automatic updates keep it simple

If there isn't a driver for your hardware in Windows Vista, there's a good chance it's available online through Windows Update. That's why you should set Windows Vista to automatically download and install all recommended updates for your computer. Windows Update detects your specific hardware configuration and downloads only the drivers you need (along with recommended software updates). To learn how to get recommended updates automatically, see Turn automatic updating on or off.

Picture of options for choosing how Windows installs updates
To make sure you get the latest drivers for your hardware, set Windows to automatically download recommended updates

Some driver updates are marked as "optional" in Windows Update. Unlike "important" or "recommended" updates, optional updates will not download or install automatically, so you need to check for them regularly if you want them.

To install optional updates

  1. Open Windows Update by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking All Programs, and then clicking Windows Update.

  2. In the left pane, click Check for updates, and then wait while Windows looks for the latest updates for your computer.

  3. If any updates are found, click View available updates.

  4. Select the optional updates that you want, and then click Install. Administrator permission required If you are prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.

Picture of new drivers found by Windows Update
Windows Vista can automatically find updated drivers for you, such as these optional driver updates for a video card and monitor

To learn more about the different types of updates and how to get them, see Updates: frequently asked questions.

When to look for a driver yourself

Even with automatic updates, you are still dependent on, to some extent, the manufacturers of your hardware. They are responsible for providing drivers to Microsoft to test and then distribute through Windows Update to millions of Windows Vista users worldwide. But not all manufacturers provide Microsoft with updated drivers, and some are slow to release them.

If your hardware isn't working and you haven't received drivers through Windows Update, it's time to look for drivers on your own. First try installing any software that came with the device. If that doesn't work, then check the manufacturer's website.

Most companies post drivers in the support section of their website, where you can search for drivers by product model. Once you find a driver you want to install, download it to your computer. Read any installation notes included with the driver. For instructions on how install a driver manually, see Update a driver for hardware that isn't working properly.

If the manufacturer does not offer a Windows Vista driver for your device, you can try installing a Windows XP driver. In most cases, such a driver will be good enough to make your device function at a basic level, but it might not take advantage of all the new capabilities of Windows Vista.

Check for compatibility

You can check to see if drivers are available before you buy a new hardware component or device. The Windows Vista Compatibility Center website contains a database of thousands of components and devices that work with Windows Vista, as well as compatible software. You can search the Compatibility Center website by product name, or browse many different categories of hardware and software.

If you want to make sure a high quality driver is available before you buy new hardware, look for the "Certified for Windows Vista" logo or "Works with Windows Vista" logo on the product. For the best experience, use a certified product. For more information, go to the Windows Vista Buy or Upgrade website.

Picture of "Certified for Windows Vista" logo and "Works with Windows Vista" logo
When buying new hardware, look for the "Certified for Windows Vista" logo (left) or "Works with Windows Vista" logo (right)

Newer isn't always better

Suppose your hardware already works with Windows Vista, but you visit the manufacturer's website and notice a newer driver available. Should you install it? Maybe. But if you're not having any problems with your hardware, it's safer to leave the driver alone.

Here's why: Newer drivers are not always better. They might not be fully tested yet. They might not have any improvements to help your hardware run better. And they might just add support for new products or technologies you don't have.

For example, when a manufacturer releases some new video cards with powerful 3D graphics capabilities, the company may also release a new driver. That same driver might also support the manufacturer's older video cards. But unless you have one of the new cards, you probably won't benefit from the new driver. It might even hurt, if the driver hasn't been fully tested with your older card.

The case of the missing driver

The odds are good that you'll find the drivers you need to make your hardware work with Windows Vista. But that's not to say that missing drivers are never a problem. A friend of mine learned this when he installed Windows Vista. The installation on his three-year-old, home-built computer went smoothly overall. But Windows didn't find drivers for his sound card or network adapter.

The missing sound card driver didn't bother him. He knew that as soon as he connected to the Internet for the first time and checked Windows Update, Windows would probably find and install that driver—which it later did.

The missing driver for his network adapter, on the other hand, caused him some pain. Without that driver, his network adapter didn't work. And without a working network adapter, he couldn't connect to the Internet and find a new driver. Can you say "chicken-and-egg problem"?

He solved the problem by using another computer in his house to download the missing driver from the website of the network adapter's manufacturer. He put the driver on a USB flash drive, copied it to his computer running Windows Vista, and soon got his network adapter working. From there, everything was easy. He connected to Windows Update, which automatically downloaded and installed 12 updated drivers. "The update was flawless and went fast," he said.

Admittedly, a less technical person might have not have known how to find the driver on the web, copy it to removable storage, and install it on another computer. And not everyone has a second computer at home. But if almost any other driver had been missing except the network adapter driver, Windows Update would have worked and my friend wouldn't have had to face this hassle.

Still worried? Try Upgrade Advisor

What if you want to play it safe and find out if there are new drivers for all of your existing hardware before you install Windows Vista? Then download and run Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor from the Microsoft website. It will scan your computer and identify any hardware problems you might encounter if you install Windows Vista. You'll also learn which components and devices you should upgrade or replace.

Even if you're the cautious type, there's no need to go overboard before upgrading to Windows Vista. You might drive yourself crazy checking that updated drivers are available for every piece of hardware you own. Just let Windows Update work its magic, and be glad "plug and pray" is a thing of the past.

About the author

Picture of columnist John Swenson

John Swenson is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. In his nine years at Microsoft, he's done everything from digging up developer news for MSDN to interviewing technical leaders around the company. Previously, he was a business and technology reporter for newspapers and trade magazines.

Have a comment for this columnist? Enter your feedback using the tool below. (You'll see the comment box after you click one of the buttons.) Note that although the columnist will read your feedback, personal replies are not possible due to the volume of feedback received.