Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Driver Maintenance Keeps PCs Healthy

Buried within PC software lie a multitude of small programs that tell the core processor how to interact with the world. These programs, called drivers, are critical to a PC’s function and performance, yet users often ignore them or are unaware of their existence. Actively maintaining these drivers can boost performance and reduce problems to help users get the most from their PCs.

One of the modern PC’s strengths is that users have a virtually unlimited range of choices for adding on devices such as keyboards, cameras, printers, and storage. Neither device type nor vendor choice are restricted, yet the PC is able to handle these additions with ease even if they add capabilities never seen before. The secret to this flexibility lies in the use of a code segment called “the driver.”

Essentially, a driver is a small program that tells the PC how to talk to and control any device that connects to the processor core. If the PC wants to read from the keyboard, draw on the display, make a sound, or write to the disk drive, it needs a driver to tell it how. Many drivers come already built into a PC at the outset. Other drivers come as part of the Windows operating system so that they are automatically available if and when a user plugs in a peripheral device.

When adding more complex devices, such as a camera or a printer, the driver loads from a CD or floppy disk as part of the installation and setup. In all cases, however, the PC needs to have a driver in order to use a device.

Driver software is different from application software. An application gives a user the software tools to perform a task, like download and edit a photo or compose and send an email. The driver does the grunt work of translating generalized instructions and data from the application into device-specific signals to the relevant hardware, like a camera or modem.

Nothing is perfect, however, and driver software is no exception. Like everything else on the PC, drivers need occasional maintenance to keep in top form. Application software, though, often has built-in routines to look for and install updates or the user knows to manually download and install updates from time to time.

Driver software has no such support, is not included in other software updates, and thus is often forgotten about. Errors discovered after the driver was released don’t get fixed, new features that have become available don’t get added, and applications software may evolve and begin requesting things an old driver cannot supply, causing the application to fail.

Unfortunately for the consumer, maintaining driver software is not a simple task. A typical PC may contain hundreds of drivers for the devices it is using, the devices it once used, and the devices it may use. Not only would manually checking for updates on each driver be time consuming and tedious, the system often offers no clue about where to look for such updates in the first place.

Applications such as DriverAgent from Phoenix Technologies can help. Such applications scan the PC to determine which drivers it needs and what their revision status is, then check a database of more than a million drivers to see if any of the PC’s drivers can be updated. The application can also automatically download and install those driver updates. This reduces the user’s task from handling scores of drivers individually to a few mouse clicks.

The benefits of routine driver maintenance are significant. By working with the most up-to-date drivers the PC is ensured access to all the latest features and functions its equipment can provide. Driver maintenance also helps eliminate potential errors that can crash systems and frustrate users, even solving problems before they appear. Applications from companies like Phoenix Technologies, the world leader in foundation software for the PC, can help by moving maintenance from a major chore to a simple task.

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