In the Windows operating system, device drivers are fairly easy to understand and operate. The feature of Windows update makes installing device drivers simple and very user friendly. By default, Windows has a wide range of drivers already stored in the kernel that holds the foundation for device drivers. This list of drivers gets updated with every operating system release (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows ) and with every service pack Windows puts out along with them (Windows XP Service Pack 1 and 2).
Device drivers can work in two different modes in the Windows platform, kernel-mode and user-mode. Both have their advantages and disadvantages between the different modes. The biggest difference between the modes is the stability and performance speed. In kernel mode, there are no restrictions in access to the hardware and run faster than in user mode. This is because the driver communicates with the hardware directly in kernel mode rather than accessing the hardware using its corresponding API (Application Programming Interface) like in user mode. The downfall to kernel mode is when the device driver crashes; the computer will immediately crash as well. In user mode, the drivers do not have direct access to the hardware; instead, they rely on the device’s API to delegate hardware access. While user mode device drivers operate at slower speeds than kernel mode drivers, a major advantage to user mode device drivers is that it is very crash tolerant. When the device driver crashes in user mode, it is always recoverable. Most modern device drivers operate in user mode except for video card drivers (most of the code needs to be kernel mode for top performance). The top two video card manufacturers in the industry right now are Nvidia and ATI. Both require separate drivers from their corresponding manufacturers. In a typical installation of an Nvidia video card driver, the driver come with mostly kernel mode code and a small amount of user mode code as well. The Nvidia Control Panel (after an Nvidia driver installation) is an example of the user mode code that Nvidia incorporates into their drivers. These drivers from the manufacturer are called, “official” drivers. There are other drivers out there for these manufacturers called, “unofficial” drivers. The most commonly known unofficial driver creator is known as “Omega Drivers” which, as described by their site, add more options to the drivers such as added resolutions. These drivers are marked as unofficial because they have not been approved by the manufacturers and it is recommended to use them at the user’s own risk.
Sound drivers are required to provide the output of sound from your computer. Like video cards, there are two locations that a sound card can be. One place is called onboard sound, which is provided by the motherboard. This is most common location of sounds cards for laptops. The other location may be found on a PCI card slot, which is typically found on the back of a desktop computer. Popular onboard sound drivers and manufacturers are Realtek and SigmaTel. Popular PCI slot sound drivers and manufacturers are Creative Sound Blaster, Turtle Beach and ASUS. Unofficial drivers are also available online for these audio drivers.
Network drivers are required for any kind of wireless or wired (Ethernet connected) device. For laptops, a wireless card typically comes standard. For desktops, a wireless PCI slot card or a wireless USB is required to get wireless connectivity. Most modern motherboards for laptops and desktops provide wired connectivity by manufacturer’s standards. Both the wireless and wired cards use completely separate drivers. In most cases, the wireless and wired cards are made by completely different manufacturers. For example, my Dell laptop wireless card is made by Dell and my wired card is made by Marvell Yukon.
One of the biggest advantages to Windows 7 is the wide range of bare bone network drivers implemented into the kernel to enable the wireless or wired card to function. In previous Windows versions, such as Windows XP, you could not connect to the internet and get wireless/wired drivers unless you installed them via CD, USB or floppy disk. This problem was a constant annoyance for users upon which Windows 7 fixed.
An important aspect of the motherboard that is important to have updated drivers for is the motherboard’s BIOS as it controls every single piece of hardware on a computer. Having the most recently updated BIOS for your motherboard is very beneficial because it fixes a lot of compatibility issues between the computer’s hardware devices.
While the basic Windows update drivers may be good enough for basic level computer users, the more advanced users like to update to the latest drivers by the manufacturer to provide maximum compatibility and performance out of their devices. Sometimes when installing/updating these device drivers there are problems that can happen. One of the biggest common problems with updating drivers is that most users do not implement a full driver installation. There can be some compatibility problems when updating versions of drivers without properly uninstalling the driver fully and then installing the most updated driver. The reason full driver installation is important is because it’s less error prone than just to update a driver without uninstalling first. Another common problem is users installing device drivers from the wrong operating system architecture (x86, x64). If a user installs the drivers with the wrong architecture, typically, the installation screen will tell you that it is not compatible. If the installation screen doesn’t inform a user, the user will definitely know because their device will no longer work. Therefore it is important to identify what kind of computer architecture your computer is because device drivers run differently on different architectures.
Like hot fixes and patches, device drivers also secure your computers privacy by fixing security holes upon with hackers can take control and even disable various devices on a computer system. The security of device drivers and the security of the operating system come hand-in-hand meaning both play an equal role in the security of a computer system. The most security involved device that most computer users are worried about is the network device. Users should recognize that updating network device drivers is just as important as updating a router’s firmware.
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