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Operating Systems

What to do when hardware vendors stop updating their drivers

Find help for problem devices that have been abandoned by the companies that make them.

My 3-year-old Hewlett-Packard PC stopped playing optical discs a couple of months ago. Not only were the built-in DVD and CD-ROM drives out of commission, I couldn't even get a brand-new external DVD drive to work. I searched and searched for driver updates, but came up empty. It wasn't until I happened upon a Registry patch on Chris Pirillo's great Lockergnome site that I got the machine to recognize the optical drives.

The patch was provided by a volunteer who had no affiliation with HP, Microsoft, or the drive vendors. It's not uncommon for PC experts to tell people to update their drivers, but I wonder if these people ever look for updates themselves.

Here's another example: I've got a Samsung SyncMaster 170MP LCD monitor that I've been using for going on five years now. It's a great little monitor (though at 17 inches diagonal it wasn't considered "little" when I bought it). Unfortunately, when I upgraded to Vista, I noticed some minor pixel swimming. As PC nuisances go, the dancing pixels are trivial--they're apparent only where a dark window edge meets a light one--but I'd rather they stopped their shuffling.

I just visited the support section of Samsung's site only to find that the company doesn't offer a Vista version of the driver for this model. Nor could I find one at any of the many sites that specialize in device-driver downloads. So I guess I'll have to put up with the pixel sizzle until I collect enough loose change to buy a new Vista-ready monitor.

Rules for avoiding hardware obsolescence
1) Don't upgrade your operating system. If the OS didn't come with the hardware, there's a great chance that an update will render some of your PC's components unusable.

2) Don't expect hardware vendors to support the products you buy from them more than a year after the purchase. In fact, you can't count on much help from them at all after the standard warranties expire. You may get troubleshooting help from other users of the products, however.

3) Before you buy any hardware, find out when it was originally released. I believe all PC components should come with a freshness date. About a year ago I bought a Linksys router that was reviewed favorably by several independent tech sites--when it was originally released 18 months earlier. In the interim, it was found to require a firmware update, but I didn't find out about its outdated firmware until I spent a day and a half trying unsuccessfully to install it on my home network. (After I downloaded the update, it worked without a hitch.)

4) Be careful when you mix and match old and new hardware and software. Replacing the hard drive on your trusty-but-ancient PC with an enormous-capacity drive that spins twice as fast as the old one will work only if the system is capable of supporting the faster speed and higher capacity. You may find it's more efficient to spend the money as part of the cost of a new PC.

5) When all else fails, bug the vendor. Send an e-mail to the company's support address (but don't bother calling the toll-free support number unless you have lots and lots of time on your hands). Detail the problem, and ask for a solution. Just don't expect to be offered one. However, if enough people complain about the same problem, the chances improve that the vendor will actually do something useful, even if it's simply to offer a discount on a replacement.

Wednesday: The first steps toward a New Year's resolution to compute in a Microsoft-less (and Apple-less) world.