What Are Hardware Drivers, and Why Do They Cause So Many Problems?

Components of computer hardware with a screwdriver and other toolsAfrica Studio / Shutterstock

If you have had a computer crash, a hardware driver may be the cause. This is software that your computer's operating system uses to communicate with its hardware. All operating systems, from Windows to Android, use hardware drivers.

The drivers are like translators for your computer

At a fundamental level, two main components include a computer – software and hardware. The software corresponds to your operating system and to all the programs and applications that you have installed on it. Your motherboard, your RAM, your mouse, your keyboard, your printer, and any other physical element connected to your computer constitute the hardware.

Without any help, the software does not know how to communicate with your hardware and vice versa. Hardware drivers are pieces of software that teach your operating system, programs, and applications how to use your devices. Imagine that your operating system speaks English and that your material speaks German. Hardware drivers are therefore the language interpreter converting English into German and vice versa.

Manufacturers make drivers; Software developers use them

Intel Graphics Driver Properties in Windows

Since the pilots manage the translation of the material, you may think that this means that the manufacturers who make the equipment manufacture the drivers. This is true from time to time; it is likely that the manufacturer has created your graphics driver, for example. But that's not always true.

Microsoft (and some manufacturers) provides universal drivers that anyone can use. These drivers offer cost savings and consistent performance across all devices. Ignoring the driver creation process allows the manufacturer to adjust their hardware to a well-known, meticulously tested and specification-driven driver that meets the needs of the enterprise. Your mouse, keyboard, and USB keys probably use Microsoft generic drivers, for example.

Some devices may use generic drivers, but they may work better with device-specific drivers. For example, your graphics card (GPU) of the computer can display your computer on a screen with generic drivers, but it needs drivers from its manufacturer (NVIDIA, AMD or Intel) for optimal 3D gaming performance.

Whatever the users of the driver, the developers take advantage of it and use it. Your text editor or word processor calls the printer driver to work with the printer and the graphics driver to display the text. Without these drivers, your program does not know how to communicate with the printer or monitor to perform essential functions such as printing and changing the font size. Hardware drivers give a boost to software developers; they do not have to learn the ins and outs of the material language to use the material.

The software developer does not need to spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel. If an application needs to print, its developer can implement a basic print function and trust the system's printer drivers to handle the details. If not, the software developer may need to design a print job for HP printers, then for Brother printers, and so on.

Software sometimes uses several drivers to work with a device, transmitting the data to everyone. To return to our language barrier example, imagine that your software speaks English and that your material speaks German. Unfortunately, the first interpreter speaks only English and Italian. This is enough to facilitate communication. Now imagine a second interpreter who speaks Italian and German. By sending the line between the two interpreters, the communication would work. The same basic concept occurs when multiple drivers are used between software and hardware.

Why hardware drivers can cause system crashes

The close interaction between software, driver and hardware is what makes everything work on your computer. It's also what breaks things. Let's go back to our analogy of language interpretation. The translation of a language is as effective as the worst speaker of a language in the chain. If your interpreter speaks English very well but only speaks passable German, he may not care and German does not really understand what is being said.

The same thing happens with device drivers, but the problem is compounded. The device driver itself may not be perfect, but the software and hardware involved may also have problems. And these problems can be magnified as they go down the chain, much like a phone game. For example, if you specify the software you want to print and it sends the direction to the driver incorrectly, the driver interprets it in the best possible way and sends the instructions to the hardware. If all goes well, you will not be wiser.

But software, drivers, and your hardware are not always smart enough to recover bad data. If your interpreter seems confused because they do not know why the German wants "hand shoes" (hands in German), you can work together to determine if it is gloves. But if your operating system tells your graphics driver to turn off the graphics card fan whenever it wants to, your graphics card will do what it says, which could lead to overheating of the system and a shutdown of the system.

The problem becomes more complicated than that, but at their most basic levels, it can be said that bad data generated an impossible query and that the system could not be recovered. Your operating system may crash or crash. The drivers themselves may contain bugs or incompatibilities, but a driver may also appear to be at fault when the underlying hardware device is down or experiencing another physical problem.

What to do if you suspect bad hardware drivers

Update Check WindowThis is the first place to go for updated hardware drivers.

If you think you have a hardware driver problem, the first thing to do is to step back and consider why you came to this conclusion. If any software recommends that you update the "obsolete" software and commit to helping you update, stop. We do not recommend the driver update utilities.; they can do more harm than good; in fact, we can debate if they cause damage. The best thing for your computer is to uninstall the driver update program.

The truth is, you do not usually need to update the hardware drivers. If you do not see a problem with your hardware and it seems to work properly, it's best to leave things as they are, rather than risk creating a problem. An exception is graphics drivers associated with graphics cards; These are regularly updated to solve problems, add new features and improve the performance of new PC games. But most of your hardware drivers probably do not need updating.

However, if you have seen a BSOD (blue screen of death) which contains an error message regarding a hardware driver, you are probably on the right track. If a hardware driver crashes, the next step is to search for new drivers.

But even then, do not use the driver update utility. The best way to update your driver is via Windows Update or the manufacturer's website. Start by looking for Windows updates. Microsoft does a good job of taking care of hardware updates for you, which can save you a lot of effort.

If you do not see anything in the Windows Update, go to the manufacturer's website and view its support area for driver downloads. Compare the latest version from the manufacturer to version displayed in Device Manager.

In most cases, the hardware drivers should run in the background and you should not notice their presence. Unfortunately, anything that makes the hardware drivers work well is also a potential source of problems. But generally, you do not need to worry at all. They do not need updating or windows support for you. Understanding these key facts will help you solve a problem if you have one – and avoid causing a problem where there was none.

RELATED: All you need to know about the blue screen of death

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