Know what you are looking for
The single best piece of advice I can give you is to take the time to positively identify the device for which the driver is required. Windows is often unable to identify a piece of hardware, so it will be up to you to know the make and model of the component that you need the device driver for.
More importantly, Windows occasionally incorrectly identifies device drivers. When this happens, Windows will typically install what it thinks is the right device driver for the device. Depending on how similar the component is to the component Windows has mistaken it for, the device may not work at all, it may work intermittently, or it may work with reduced functionality. For example, I once saw Windows misidentify a disk controller. The controller worked, even with the wrong driver, but it didn't perform as well as it should have.
So how can you identify a hardware device? If you are working with a desktop computer, all you have to do is to open the computer's case, locate the device in question, and make note of its make and model.
If you are working with a laptop, then identifying the device in question may not be so simple. You can't usually open the case to identify the device because many devices are integrated onto the laptop's system drive. Instead, download the drivers from the manufacturer's website. Keep in mind that this method may require some trial and error.
Some laptop manufacturers are notorious for being inconsistent with the hardware they use. For instance, I recently had to download some network interface card (NIC) drivers for a laptop. When I looked up the laptop's specs on the manufacturer's website, I found that the laptop could have been equipped with any one of five different NICs. As a result, I had to download the drivers for all five and see which one worked.
Pay attention to Windows editions
As you search for drivers on the Internet, pay attention to which edition of Windows a particular driver is designed for -- although sometimes you might get lucky and be able to use a driver on a version of Windows for which it was never intended. For instance, I have lost count of the number of times that I have used Windows XP drivers on systems that were running Windows Server 2003. Likewise, some device drivers are specifically designed to be compatible with multiple versions of Windows. More often, however, you will find that the stated version of Windows does make a difference.
For example, Windows 7 was built on the Windows Vista kernel. Vista drivers should theoretically work with Windows 7, but when I upgraded my own desktop, I found that I was unable to use my Vista sound card driver. I had to go without sound until the manufacturer eventually released a Windows 7 version of the driver.
Furthermore, the Windows edition also makes a difference in driver compatibility. Sixty four-bit editions of Windows can run 32-bit applications, but they cannot use 32-bit device drivers. Therefore, if you are operating a 64-bit edition of Windows, you must use 64-bit drivers. Likewise, 32-bit editions of Windows can only use 32-bit drivers.
What do I need?
All of the techniques above assume that you have at least a general idea of what type of device you need a driver for (such as NIC, sound card or video devices). But occasionally you may have no idea what you need. For example, Figure 1 shows an instance in which Windows displays an unknown device in the device manager. My computer seems to be working fine, so I have no idea offhand what is missing.
As you can see in Figure 2, opening the device's properties sheet seems to be of little help.
However, the Details tab, shown in Figure 3, provides some potentially useful information.
This information is helpful because how plug and play works. Each manufacturer of plug-and-play hardware is assigned a unique, three-character identification. The manufacturer also creates a unique device ID number for each device that it creates. In Figure 3, the manufacturer ID is "AWY," and the device ID is "0001." This information can be used to find out what the device is and ultimately, which driver we need.
In my particular case, I was able to do an Internet search on "AWY0001" and determine that the missing driver was for my computer's system board. Once I knew that, I was able to go to the system board manufacturer's website and download the missing driver.
Tracking down missing device drivers isn't exactly rocket science, but sometimes it is impossible to find device drivers for legacy hardware that work with modern versions of Windows.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional Award seven times for his work with Windows Server, IIS and Exchange Server. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and health care facilities and was once a network administrator for Fort Knox. You can visit his personal website at www.brienposey.com.
This was first published in July 2010