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What is a Hardware Driver?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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A hardware driver is a small bit of computer code packaged in a file that tells a computer system how to use a piece of hardware. Every hardware component in a computer system requires a driver to function, whether it’s the printer, DVD player, hard disk, or graphics card. Updating this code can also add new functionality to the component. Mouse drivers, for example, commonly include added features and improved configuration menus with updated drivers.

In the past, each piece of hardware came with a diskette that included the necessary driver, which had to be installed separately. While this is still true in some instances, many modern operating systems include drivers for common components like internal dialup modems, memory sticks, and printers. Some digital cameras and other types of components might also be recognized by the operating system without requiring a hardware driver to be installed separately.

Sometimes, a component that has been in use for several years might require a new driver to work properly with a new operating system. Other times, bugs in the code might cause a manufacturer to release a new version. A virus or software glitch might also corrupt an existing driver. For these and other reasons, manufacturers commonly make current ones freely available through their websites.

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To see whether an updated hardware driver is available for a component, computer uses can typically go to the manufacturer’s web site and click on a “support” link. This usually leads the way to the “downloads” link. On many sites, the user must navigate through drop-down menus to choose the product and model in question. A list of any updated drivers should be offered. Users should read the instructions carefully, as there is usually more than one driver available, depending on the operating system or component model.

For inexperienced users, it is probably best to let the operating system install the driver for you. An improperly installed or missing driver will cause the component to stop functioning. Alternately, some manufacturers’ websites might include specific instructions for installing the driver. In that case, it is probably best for users to follow the website’s instructions. People can also opt to have a technically inclined person help update the drivers.

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