The correct way to update Windows' device drivers

Visit the system vendor's site to download the latest versions of the software that runs your PC's important components.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

For the last couple of months, I have been trying to find the source of an intermittent glitch with my notebook PC's wireless connection. I would often lose Internet access when waking the system from sleep mode: the network icon in the system tray indicated "Local only."

Restarting the machine restored the wireless link, but then why use sleep mode at all? After a little trial-and-error (mostly the latter), I decided to check the age of the device driver for the notebook's wireless adapter. Not surprisingly, the driver was slightly older than the machine itself, which I bought last fall.

I found a newer version of the driver on the notebook vendor's site. It took only a few minutes to download and install the update. After restarting the system, I put the machine to sleep by pressing the Windows key, the right arrow, and Enter. When I woke it up by pressing Enter again, the network icon showed a little blue globe in its bottom-right corner to indicate that I had an Internet connection.

That driver update turned out so well I decided to check the other refreshes available for my notebook. I noticed one for the video adapter that was said to fix a problem with streaming Internet videos. Bonus! I decided to call it quits after those two updates lest something goes wrong and I'm left wondering which update is the cause.

Here are a few other driver-update precautions:

Get your drivers from the PC vendor.
System vendors often customize the drivers for their machines. In fact, when I searched for a driver update on the site of the company that made my notebook's video adapter, I was politely instructed to look on the notebook vendor's site for the appropriate update. A link would've been nice, but I'm not complaining.

Stick with updating only the devices that are acting up.
The old "ain't broke-don't fix" rule applies here. Even a two- or three-year-old PC will likely get along fine with the original driver for its hard drive, though a BIOS refresh might be helpful. As in my case, video cards and wireless-network adapters are likely to benefit most from a new driver.

Create a restore point.
Windows XP and Vista will likely create one for you before the new driver is installed, but to play it safe, set one yourself via System Restore and give it a descriptive name just in case you forget when exactly you loaded the update. Do not rely on Windows' Roll Back Driver function under the Driver tab in the Device Manager Properties dialog box. Likewise, run the update's own installer rather than using Properties' Update Driver button.

Windows Vista's Device Manager Properties dialog box
Don't count on the "Roll Back Driver" option in Windows' Device Manager Properties dialog; create a restore point instead. Microsoft

Update your drivers one at a time.
As I mentioned above, if you load several updates in quick succession and something goes wrong, it can be difficult to figure out which update is the troublemaker.

You probably don't need to pay for a software-update service.
This is another one for the "ain't broke-don't fix" category. If you've got so much software on your PC that you need a service to track it, maybe you should think about simplifying your life--or at least the tech part of it. Most PC users can manage their software updates on their own, with a little help from the vendors.

You can get your Microsoft Office updates automatically via the Windows Update service, and other major applications offer similar auto-update functions. Likewise, Flash, QuickTime, and other media players can be set to update automatically, as can Firefox and other browsers (IE 7 updates along with Windows). Last month, I described ways to manage Windows Updates and to keep Apple's Safari from being offered as part of the company's iTunes and QuickTime updates.