What is a device driver, and why are they so important?

A person using a desktop computer.
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If you just use your PC for browsing, working or casual gaming then you might never come across a device driver, but these little bits of software are vital for smooth PC functionality.

They’re little bits of software that enable smooth communication between your operating system and the various bits of hardware attached to your PC. Almost everything connected to your system won’t work properly unless you’ve installed some kind of driver.

Drivers are pretty critical, then. It pays to keep an eye on them if you want your hardware to work as well as possible – but if you’ve not encountered them before, they can seem like an enigma.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It only takes a little legwork for any PC or laptop user to become familiar with device drivers. This article will explain exactly what device drivers are, explore why they’re so important and reveal the best methods for keeping them updated.

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What is a device driver?

At its most basic level, a device driver is a bit of software that enables your PC’s various bits of hardware to communicate with your operating system. If you don’t have them installed, your version of Windows cannot communicate with the hardware, and therefore the hardware won’t function.

Because they’re so important, many device drivers function in a part of your operating system called the “kernel”. It’s a layer beneath the operating system that most consumers can’t access – it’s an area of your system that allows direct communication between hardware and software.

Device drivers are translators that enable your PC’s operating system and applications to communicate with all of your hardware. They also allow different bits of hardware to work together, which ultimately creates ways for everything in and around your PC to talk to all of the other bits necessary to function smoothly.

That goes for internal and external hardware: some drivers make graphics cards, hard disks and SSDs work and others enable your keyboards, mice, cameras, monitors and phones to interface with your PC properly.

Having the right drivers and keeping them up to date is crucial for smooth PC operation, no matter what you do with your PC – from gaming to working and everything in between.

But getting the right drivers isn’t only important for seamless functionality: correct, up-to-date device drivers also fix bugs, close security holes that can be exploited by hackers, and ensure that your hardware keeps working with new apps and operating systems.

They can often improve performance and add features, too – graphics card drivers are regularly released with updates that improve gaming framerates, for instance, and gaming peripherals can be updated with more complex lighting systems or more customization options.

Different types of device driver

Device drivers address a huge swathe of devices and components, so there are plenty of different kinds of driver around. It pays to know the various kinds of driver if you want to really understand your PC.

Most of the drivers you’ll come across are kernel drivers that operate in that crucial layer between the operating system and your hardware. These drivers control your motherboard’s various parts, like the chipset, and many of the other base-level components that work away in the background without requiring user intervention.

Other drivers operate on the surface level of the operating system and work automatically when the user takes a particular action, like attaching a mouse or keyboard. The driver will activate when a peripheral is connected so the new product can work seamlessly. These drivers tend to be included in your operating system and you won’t need to download anything else to get things working.

Many components and peripherals need specialist drivers and these often offer more control to users. These Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) drivers are usually supplied alongside graphics cards, sound cards, high-end keyboards, and mice.

If you install an OEM driver it’ll often come with an application to manage the driver, download the latest software and enable different features. One of the most common examples is GeForce Experience, which comes with Nvidia graphics cards.

An OEM driver’s management application often lets you tweak the hardware and activate different features. With keyboards and mice you’ll usually be able to change their lights and functionality and inside sound card drivers you can alter their EQ settings and customize your listening experience.

Alongside these specialist drivers you’ll also find basic drivers within any operating system. These let components work at a rudimentary level until you install the proper software. For peripherals like USB drives, basic keyboards and most monitors, that’s enough to get things working flawlessly. But if you’ve got high-end kit that comes with extra features – like a gaming mouse – you won’t be able to use it properly until you install the appropriate driver from the OEM.

Any computer will also have some components that don’t need a driver. The processor doesn’t need one, for instance. Physical parts like fans, coolers and power supplies usually don’t need their own drivers either.

How to update your device drivers

No matter what kind of driver you need, keeping them updated is important. It’s the best way to ensure stability, performance and security for your PC, laptop and peripherals.

Happily, there are several methods and they’re all pretty straightforward. The easiest way to update your drivers? Run Windows Update if you’re on a Windows machine or Software Update on a Mac. These services scan your system to see if you’ve got any outdated drivers. If they find some, Microsoft or Apple’s update services will download and install them automatically.

These official apps also let you customize when updates are downloaded and installed, so you can retain more control over the process. That’s handy if you don’t want to download a particular version of a driver, or if you don’t want to downloads and installations to disturb your computer use.

Sometimes those official update tools don’t find all the drivers your device needs, though, and they don’t always fetch the most up-to-date versions. They’ll also sometimes use their own generic versions instead of bespoke drivers provided by manufacturers.

If you’d like to keep everything updated with the newest and best device drivers, you’ll have to take more granular control.

For devices like graphics cards, sound cards, networking components, SSDs and high-end peripherals you’ll usually find the latest drivers on each OEM’s website. Many manufacturers maintain dedicated driver pages that allow users to easily download drivers for all of the devices they sell, while on others you’ll need to navigate to your product’s page to find the latest software.

Happily, lots of OEMs provide apps that manage drivers without requiring you to visit their websites. Tools like Nvidia GeForce Experience, AMD Software: Adrenalin Edition, Corsair ICUE and Samsung Magician monitor hardware, notify users about new driver updates and install them automatically, so it’s an extremely easy process.

If you’re unsure about which driver version you’re using, any of those apps will tell you. And if you don’t have a third-party app to manage your hardware, open your system’s Device Manager, right-click on the relevant entry, and consult the Driver tab in the box that opens. If you use an Apple system, head to the About This Mac section and then the System Report.

There will sometimes be a clearer sign that you need to update your drivers, too – certain parts of your PC system will start to malfunction or stop working entirely. And even if everything’s still working smoothly, if you update your driver you’ll often get new features or better performance.

Downloading drivers directly from the manufacturer is the best way to ensure you get the latest versions for all your internal and external devices.

If you’d like these OEM drivers but don’t want the hassle of finding them all yourself, third-party tools like AVG Driver Updater, Driver Genius and DriverFix get the job done smoothly. These tools will scan the web, alert you when they find new drivers and then download and install them without needing any user intervention.

Some of these applications are free, and others require a small monetary outlay. Some are included within broader security and PC management packages.

That should be the only time you spend money to update drivers, though – operating system, component and OEM drivers should always be free. If a site asks you to pay to download a driver then it’s probably not reputable and it may well not be a safe driver.

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Mike has worked as a technology journalist for more than a decade and has written for most of the UK’s big technology titles alongside numerous global outlets. He loves PCs, laptops and any new hardware, and covers everything from the latest business trends to high-end gaming gear.