Finding drivers

What to do when your hardware won't work with Windows Vista

By John Swenson

I find few things in life more aggravating than when I buy an expensive video card, scanner, or other hardware device, plug it into my computer, and…nothing happens. No drivers are automatically installed, the device doesn’t function, nothing.

Windows Vista is designed to help take away that aggravation. If you set Windows Update to install updates automatically, as Microsoft recommends, your hardware should work. When you select the install updates automatically setting, Windows Update detects your specific hardware configuration and downloads only the drivers you need (along with recommended Windows software updates).

Does this actually work? Yes, I’ve used it myself and it does. Does automatic hardware installation always work? No, for the simple reason that Windows must work with thousands of hardware products from scores of companies. Not all manufacturers write drivers that make their hardware work smoothly with new versions of Windows. Other companies create solid drivers, but are slow to release them.

Every hardware device has one thing in common: The need for a software driver designed to work with Windows Vista. It’s possible that missing or outdated drivers are the cause of your hardware problem. But before you reach that conclusion, here are some simple steps to take:

Turn on automatic updating

It’s important to set Windows to install and update drivers automatically. Your PC is probably already set to download updates automatically, but you should check. If you follow these steps, you might never have to install a driver yourself or struggle to get a device to work.

To turn on automatic updating

  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 Change settings.

  3. Click Install automatically (recommended).

  4. Under Recommended updates, select the Include recommended updates when downloading, installing, or notifying me about updates check box, and then click OK. Administrator permission required If you are prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.

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

Don’t neglect the final step, which concerns drivers. You’re not done until you select the check box to include recommended updates. If you don’t select this, Windows can't provide all the updated drivers it finds for your hardware.

Set Windows Update to check for drivers

After you set Windows to install and update drivers automatically, you can update your drivers with Windows Update.

To update drivers using Windows Update

  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.

  3. To see if updated drivers are available, click View available updates. Windows Update will list any updated drivers that are available for devices installed on your computer.

  4. If updates are available, click the driver that you want to install, 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

If you want to learn more about how Windows Update works, see Understanding Windows automatic updating and Updates: frequently asked questions.

Check with the manufacturer

If your hardware doesn’t work properly even after you’ve turned on automatic updating, set Windows Update to check for new drivers, and installed any new drivers, it’s time to check with the manufacturer. If any discs came with the hardware and you haven’t installed that software yet, do so now. Follow the instructions from the manufacturer.

If you didn't receive any software with the device, or if the device still doesn't work after you install the software, check the manufacturer’s website. The company might have released a newer version of the driver than the one that came with the product. Most companies have support sections on their websites, where you can search for drivers by product model. Once you find the driver you need, download it to your computer. Read any installation notes included with the driver.

Software included with your hardware will usually install drivers automatically. Sometimes, you might have to install a driver manually.

To manually update a driver

You must be logged on as an administrator to perform these steps.

  1. Open Device Manager by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, clicking Control Panel, clicking System and Maintenance, and then clicking Device Manager. Administrator permission required If you are prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.

  2. In Device Manager, locate the device you want to update, and then double-click the name of the device.

  3. Click the Driver tab, and then click Update Driver.

If the manufacturer does not offer a Windows Vista driver for your device, try installing a Windows XP driver. In most cases, a Windows XP 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 before you buy

There is one more option you can take advantage of early in the game: Check for Windows Vista compatibility before you buy.

Before shopping for hardware, go to the Windows Vista Compatibility Center website. This website contains a comprehensive list of devices that have been tested to work with Windows Vista—everything from Bluetooth adapters and camcorders to webcams and wireless network cards. You’ll find thousands of products listed here; so many that you might even have trouble sorting through them all to find the one you want.

If you're a do-it-yourselfer who likes to build your own PCs, you can check motherboards and other components you'll need to put together your own system.

The website will tell you if a product is compatible with Windows Vista. If you want to make sure a good 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. The website lists which products have the logos. If you want to learn what these logos mean, go to the Windows Vista Buy or Upgrade website. For the best experience, use a certified product.

No more nasty surprises

I prefer to avoid surprises by checking for drivers in advance when I shop for new hardware. Considering how many hardware products there are in the world, it doesn’t surprise me that some of them have compatibility problems. I checked with one leading online retailer and found 782 models of video cards from 24 different companies. Wow! How about something simpler, like mice? The variety of products was almost as vast: 393 models of mice from 46 companies. Is it any wonder some hardware doesn’t work with a new version of Windows?

I recently spent $500 on a high-end scanner that I plan to use to scan thousands of old family slides and prints. Before I bought the scanner, I checked the Windows Vista Compatibility Center website to make sure it was on the list. I also checked the manufacturer’s website, to see if Epson had released a Windows Vista driver for the scanner. They had. Bingo—I bought the scanner and have been one happy customer ever since.

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.

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