Where to find device drivers

Washington  - Device drivers are the indispensable link between your computer and everything you attach to it. Without them, your digital camera, printer, scanner, iPod, Webcam, video card, or digital video recorder are just useless gadgets. With device drivers, though, you're in business.

Unfortunately, device drivers - which are simply small software programs - are all too easy to lose. They typically come on an installation disc that is delivered with whatever gadget you're trying to use. And when that installation disk disappears, you can be out of luck. So you need a plan for gathering together and storing all the device drivers do you need so that you can use your PC for work or play.

--- Prepare for disaster

If your PC is now up and running properly, with all of your peripherals connected and talking to your computer, say a small thanks to the computer gods. But don't stop there. Instead, imagine what will happen when - not if - your hard drive crashes or you move to a new version of your operating system. You'll need device drivers for each and every gadget that you connect to your personal computer.

So do yourself a huge favour and take the time to gather together all of the disks that came with your PC and each of the peripherals that you consider essential. Among drivers you'll commonly need are motherboard drivers (chipset), sound card drivers, video card drivers, wireless card drivers, scanner, printer, camera, and iPod drivers, network drivers, mouse or other pointing device drivers, as well as any driver for additional add-in cards that you may have.

If you know that you're likely to lose the original disks that contain the drivers you need, copy those disks - or at least the "driver" portion of the disks - to a USB or other external hard drive, and keep the external device with your PC. Don't lose it. Include a copy of WinZip or another archiving utility along with the driver files, since you'll often need this to unpack the drivers. Many are delivered as ZIP (archive) files.

--- Driver heaven

If your drivers are in driver heaven - in other words, if you've lost the driver disks that came with your PC or its peripherals - you have two options. You can try to assemble all of the drivers from the Web sites of the manufacturers of your equipment, or you can tap one of a number of third-party sites devoted to supplying drivers of all kinds.

Either method will require that you have a machine that can connect to the Internet, and to do so you'll at least need the driver for your Ethernet port or your wireless card. So it's vital that you collect these drivers right now if you've lost the original driver disks. Otherwise, you could be stuck with a partially functioning computer if you have a system meltdown or you upgrade or switch operating systems.

Checking the Web sites of manufacturers is the best way to get drivers from the Internet. The "support" area of those Web sites will typically have the latest versions of the drivers you need, and the drivers should be sorted by the operating system you'll be using. It's important to obtain drivers for the proper operating system; don't assume that drivers designed to run under Windows XP will work with the 64-bit versions of either XP or Vista, for example. They probably won't.

Download drivers for each operating system you use or might use in the future. While this is somewhat time-consuming, you'll be glad you have all of the necessary files should you decide to try out that 64-bit version of Vista that you have lying around.

--- What's in your PC?

How can you assemble device drivers if you don't know exactly which parts are in your PC? That's a problem that many face.

If you purchased your computer from a major vendor, such as Dell, you can probably just log on to the vendor's site, go to Support, and type in the asset tag number - or other identifying information - about your PC. A list of supplied components should then be available. Write down or print out the list, making sure to note the make and model number of parts such as your video card and sound card.

There are also software programs that you use to identify what's in your PC. Most of them are absolutely free. Belarc Advisor (http://www.belarc.com/free_download.html), for instance, will build a detailed list of the hardware and software installed in your computer. The hardware list is all you'll need for the purposes of obtaining drivers. PC Wizard (http://pc-wizard-2008.en.softonic.com) and Everest Home Edition (http://www.lavalys.com.hk/products/everesthome.asp) are very capable alternatives.

--- Driver sites

If you rely on an old peripheral - such as an old scanner or printer - and can't find a driver for it anywhere, consider hunting it down at one of the driver repositories online. DriverSearch.com (http://www.driversearch.com), for instance, presents you with a Google-like search field into which you can type the make and model number of the peripheral for which you need a driver. The links returned typically include pointers to other driver repositories, where the files themselves are housed.

DriverAgent (http://www.driveragent.com) is fee-based and requires that you first download and install a utility that reveals exactly what's in your computer. The good news is that the 29 dollars you pay will give you access to a database of drivers that is more likely to return the files you need than the free services are. DriverAgent claims to house over 1.3 million driver files.

Other driver sites include WinDrivers (http://www.windrivers.com) and DriverGuide (http://www.driverguide.com). Neither of these, unfortunately, is a model of simplicity, but if you're in a bind, they might lead you to files you need.

--- Installing device drivers

Once you have all of your driver files, installing them is easy. First, install your operating system on your computer. Then start installing the driver files, one by one. How you launch the driver installation program will depend upon how you stored the drivers. If you have the original driver CDs, for instance, just inserting them, one after the other, should work. If you copied all of the driver files to a removable device, you'll need to attach it, browse to the device, and then launch the driver installation programs (which often end in "exe"). If your drivers end in "zip," you'll need to first use WinZip or another archiving program to unzip the files. Then look for an exe file to install.

After installing a driver, you're often asked to reboot your computer. If you need to install several drivers, there's no need to reboot until the final driver is installed.

Assembling and storing driver files is certainly not something that you'll look forward to doing on a sunny day. But if you set aside the time to gather, organise, and safekeep your driver files now, you'll save yourself lots of time down the road - and upgrading your operating system or reinstalling it won't be the chore it otherwise could be. (dpa)