How I manage device drivers

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: PCs are like snowflakes – no two are alike. Even identically branded machines from the same company can have subtle differences in firmware and configuration, or they might use different components because of a change on the manufacturing line.

Trying to keep track of drivers and firmware updates for every device in a computer can be tedious, especially if you can’t tell which devices are installed on a given machine. Through the years, I’ve devised a system that works for me. Maybe it will work for you, too. I do the following steps every time I set up a new Windows PC (or refurbish an old one). It takes very little time and can save hours of headaches later.

  1. I create a folder called Drivers to serve as a storage area for downloaded drivers, links, and instructions. Using Windows Vista, I find it easiest to create this storage area as a subfolder in the Downloads folder. With XP, you can duplicate this folder hierarchy (Downloads\Drivers) in My Documents.
  2. The first file that goes in the Drivers folder is a list of all the components on the current PC that require drivers. I start by taking inventory. If you purchase the PC from an online vendor like Dell, the job is a little easier because you can start with the invoice in electronic form. You can also use something like Belarc Advisor to create this inventory. In either case, I create a plain text file containing details of that system’s configuration. Knowing the exact model number of a particular device makes searching much easier. (And for internal PCI or PCI-Express devices, it’s a good idea to jot down these details while you’re holding the device in your hand, before you replace the cover on the PC.)
  3. Because I’m managing multiple computers, most of them wildly different in configuration, I create a separate subfolder for each computer, giving it a descriptive name. If you just have one or two computers to keep track of, or if you have a fleet of essentially identical PCs, you can skip this step.
  4. For every device (or group of devices, in the case of things like motherboard and chipset drivers), I create a subfolder and give it a descriptive name. Most of the time, I create these subfolders on the fly, when I first download a driver for a device. Within that subfolder, I save the driver file itself, any readme files or serial numbers or configuration notes, and (most importantly) a link to the download page for that driver. I never save a direct download link; instead, I always make sure to save a link to the page where I can check for a newer driver later.

And that’s it. If I ever need to reinstall a driver, or if I transplant a device from one machine to another, there’s no need for me to hunt for it. I know exactly where to find the most recent driver I downloaded. Having the link to the driver download page means I can usually check for an updated driver with just a click or two.

Every two or three months, I take a quick scan through the Drivers folder to purge downloads for any devices I’ve retired, and then I burn the collection to DVD for backup purposes.

And it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: there’s nothing Windows-centric about any of this. You can do the same with your favorite Linux distro or Mac.


The Vista Master Driver List

Hardware notebook: What I look for in a Vista PC

The Vista driver outlook gets a little brighter

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7 thoughts on “How I manage device drivers

  1. Oftentimes, I have to make a folder like that even before I have a physical system! I recently bought a new server motherboard for my home SBS machine. Once I decided on the make and model, the fun began and I collected drivers!

    I burned these to a mini CD labelled with the name of my new motherboard. Only problem I had was when the manufacturer of the RAID controller on the motherboard sold its chipset and drivers to another company and I had a good time finding the new vendor to get the drivers from.

    As a result, I almost never use the driver CD in the box if I can get the drivers on the website beforehand. Only when I can’t find the drivers or setup utilities online do I open the box for the CD.

    One problem I run into that’s very irritating: Many driver packages from Dell and other big vendors don’t have descriptive filenames; one driver for video might be labeled “EN16577.EXE”. The “next” driver “EN16578.EXE” is usually something completely different. In neither case do you actually know what either file is for. There’s no metadata standard to make sense of it.

    Worst case, you have to run the program to find out what it does. That’s cute. Not.

  2. Off topic. Ed, you might find this mildly interesting. The Dutch consumers organization opened a site where Vista users can record their complaints:
    They did this because new PCs are sold in The Netherlands with Vista installed (no choice offered) and apparently non-experienced users meet lots of problems, because “Vista has not been developed fully yet” (according to this organization). Paul. (Dutch reader of your Web log).

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