One important task in keeping notebook and desktop PCs up-to-date is periodic scans of installed drivers to make sure they’re current and working properly. The more computers (or reference hardware configurations) you must maintain, the more important this task becomes. Fortunately, lots of good tools abound to assist in this task.
Keeping up with change is always a tricky and sometime irksome part of maintaining current, correct hardware configurations. Despite your best efforts to create stable, persistent reference configurations, bits and pieces here and there will keep changing. That’s particularly so for the hardware components that go into standard desktops and notebooks. But the drivers that support the display cards, network interfaces, chipsets, peripherals, and other components that go into and onto such systems also stay in an ongoing state of ferment.
In dealing with device drivers, however, you can bring considerable assistance to bear on maintenance tasks, particularly in the form of driver scanner tools. Basically, these distributed toolsets combine client-side software that enumerates all the devices on a Windows PC and checks related driver information (particularly version numbers and file dates) against a server-side database that compares what’s found on the scanned PC to what it has stored about the most current drivers available. The scanning software marks that driver as “current” if the installed driver is at least as new as what’s in the database, or its version number is greater than or equal to the database information. If, however, the database has information about a driver that’s newer or that has a higher version number, the driver is marked as “outdated.”
Most driver scanners do this check for free. What you must pay for is access to the links to the newer drivers, making it both easy and fast to download newer drivers when you need them. Readers on extremely tight budgets can surf the web to find the drivers they need, but this takes time, and time is worth money. Prices to license the downloads usually start at about $30 per year for up to 10 computers, and cost $2-3 per machine for licenses for more than 10 computers. I’m paying DriverAgent $100 a year right now for a license that covers up to 50 unique systems, as identified by their Windows computer names. Most organizations will find the benefits of access to outweigh the relatively minor costs involved.
A Short Sweet Set of Driver Scanners
There are probably hundreds of driver scanner packages and offerings available nowadays. Most require their users to install a scanning program on a target PC, though some sites offer Web-based scanners that use Java applets or ActiveX controls instead of full-blown local executable programs. I’ve worked with dozens of such programs myself, each of which has advantages and shortfalls, but here’s a short table of offerings that I judged good enough for me to pay to use them for a year or longer.
Table 1: Driver Scanners Worth Considering
|DriverAgent||$30/yr||up to 10||Offers both executable and ActiveX scanners; large database (12M+)|
|Driver Guide||$30/yr||1 PC at a time||Exe file; 1.7M+ entries in database; half-price discounts available|
|Driver Detective||$30/yr||up to 10||Exe file, 20M+ entries in database; excellent tech support|
|RadarSync||$30/yr||1 PC at a time||Exe file; 12M+ entries in database; great automation and alert features|
Sampling DriverAgent Screens
For good or for ill, I still use DriverAgent on a monthly basis to check my various computers and those I’ve built for friends and family. Currently that number is under 20, but I signed up for DriverAgent’s 50 PC license; what with machines that come and go at my house for reviews, and those I work on for friends and family, 50 is a big enough number that I’ve not yet had to extend my license further. I recommend that you purchase at least 10-20 licenses more than you actually need, because as old machines go, new machines will come in, and each new Windows computer name counts as a new license (alas, for my multi-boot machines, of which I have several, each bootable OS counts as its own machine as well).
When you visit the DriverAgent website, you have the option of downloading a resident driveragent.exe file to your PC, or installing a browser-based program to perform a Web-based scan instead. I like the Web-based scanner best nowadays because although exe versions work fine, many are not as good as warning you about the need to update the software as are the Web scanning tools (and the DriverAgent version, at least, updates itself automatically whenever a new version comes along).
Running the Driver Scanner
After you run the scanner (either version), scan results appear on a Web page.
Initial scan results indicate that 3 out of the 121 drivers I’ve got installed on this particular system are out of date. A careful check of the lower right-hand corner of the screen shows that DriverAgent also scans for drivers on disconnected devices as well as active ones, where a quick reset to turn this feature off lowers that number from 3 out 121 to 3 out of 65.
Zeroing in on Outdated Drivers
If I scroll down on the screen that’s partially depicted in Figure 1, eventually I’ll find a driver with a red X in the Bad column, as shown in Figure 2. This screen capture also includes a shot of the detail/download page available to DriverAgent subscribers when the click the blue down-arrow icon to access any particular driver’s download page.
This particular screen highlights one issue with DriverAgent that all of the scanners I know well also manifest to some degree or another: namely, the tendency to associate the release date for the newest device driver in a release with all components in a device. What does this mean? It means that the driver for the Dell AIO 968 printer not only includes the printer driver, but also includes drivers for the USB ports on that device (to which this entry refers), as well as the drivers for its built-in memory card reader.
Unfortunately, DriverAgent does not distinguish the printer driver date and version number information for the printer itself from the USB and memory card drivers also installed as part of that device’s overall capabilities. Alas, this means that DriverAgent uses the date of the printer driver (2006.08.21 as shown in Figure 2) to decide that its USB port (with the standard Microsoft Windows USB driver release date of 2006.06.21) driver is out of date. After talking with the folks at DriverAgent tech support (with several, I’ve built up name recognition over the past few years), I learned that this is a side effect of the hierarchical way in which driver information for multi-function devices are organized in the Windows OS, where the parent driver “trumps” any of its children, even when family members rightfully use different device drivers, each with its own separate and correct date. As it happens, in fact, the USB 2.0 and memory card reader drivers haven’t been updated since Windows Vista was released (which explains why the date shown in Figure 2 actually predates the Windows 7 release date itself).
Downloading and Installing New Drivers
Once you call up the driver detail page shown at the right-hand side of figure 2, you’ll want to examine the dates and particulars for in the Details and Current Driver sections at the bottom of that Web page. If you can see that the recommended driver is indeed newer and appears to be a legitimate replacement for the currently installed driver, download and install it on a test system. Then, you can re-scan that computer to see if the status changes or otherwise. Tip: items that don’t change either indicate a spurious date or version labeling issue, like the one I describe in the previous section, or indicate that perhaps the installer didn’t actually install your new driver. You can confirm this independently using Device Manager in Control Panel to check the date and version number for the driver that’s currently installed and comparing it to the information in the Details section on the DriverAgent (or other driver scanner) download page.
Beware the Occasional Driver Gotcha
Whether you’re working on one-off machines, or on widely deployed reference hardware configurations, you want to double-check your driver updates, and then test new driver configurations before pushing them out to end users. If possible, either work on an updated computer yourself for a week or so (if that makes sense) or deploy a limited pilot test to one or more power users so they can let you know if the change causes any problems. This is probably the best way to avoid pushing out updates that might turn around to bite you on the hindquarters when unexpected issues crop up, as they sometimes do.
In working with some driver installers, I’ve also observed that even when an installer program reports that it’s updated specific drivers, the installation is not always confirmed by subsequent driver scans or manual checks using Device Manager. For some reason, I’ve encountered this issue most frequently with Intel chipset update programs (infinst911autol.exe is a common filename for various ICH7-10 chipsets, for example), where various PCI devices under the System Devices heading don’t get updated. Should that happen, use Device Manager to select the specific devices in need of update and use the right-click “Update driver software…” entry to force it to search the directory where you unzipped the driver files. In most cases, this does the trick.
On the other hand, if the installer leaves no files behind for Device Manager to try, you may need to use another technique instead. Download Legroom Software’s Universal Extractor and let it unpack the files it finds inside the driver installer (if it can, and in most cases it will happily do so for .exe, .msi, and typical compressed archive formats) into a target directory for you. Then you can point the “Browse my computer manually” driver update function in Device Manager to that directory and complete the driver update process. If it works for me (and it often does), it should work for you, too!
Check for Driver Updates Regularly and Religiously
I run my driver scanner about once a month on my various systems, and seldom does a month go by when I don’t need to update at least one or two drivers. But by keeping up with what’s current, and making sure changes don’t cause more problems than they solve, you can do the driver dance with the best of them. Enjoy!
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