No Trip Without The Driver: An Excursion Into The Software Behind Today's Hardware

What Is A Driver?

A driver is nothing more than software that links your operating system with your hardware. Modern operating systems like Windows 2000 come with a huge set of drivers that support common hardware components. Unfortunately, this set is as old as the operating system itself, typically dating back to its first release. An incredible amount of new hardware is continuously being released, so the operating system cannot possibly detect all hardware components that exist (like motherboard chipsets, controllers, network adapters, sound chips, graphics chips, USB or FireWire controllers etc).

That's why alost all components that you can buy include drivers on a CD or floppy disk. The drivers usually support Windows 95/98/ME and Windows 2000; for Linux or BeOS support, you have to do some extra checking.

Windows Driver Support

Hardware drivers have different functions, depending on the hardware. Some components need a driver in order to run, while others rely on drivers to unfold their full performance or features.

Motherboard/chipset

Works without drivers, but you can only get full performance out of it with driver support. A we will see later, the AGP driver plays an important role in terms of 3D performance.

Mass storage adapters

Windows comes with a wide spectrum of host adapters and controllers that are supported by default. Typically, this includes the IDE interface which is part of the motherboard chipset. Many interfaces will be recognized (Intel and VIA), most others usually work with the standard Windows IDE driver (SiS). However, there are many others that are not supported by Windows and thus won't work without special drivers, for example most IDE RAID chips (Promise, AMI, HighPoint) and SCSI host adapters that have a newer release date than the operating system. Even the detected IDE-interfaces from Intel, VIA, ALi and others need to be switched to DMA-mode within the device manager to make them work at full performance.

Graphics cards

All graphics adapters (AGP and PCI) will work properly in text mode and at least at 640x480 at 16 colors - which is just enough to install Windows. Afterwards, you normally cannot exceed 256 colors. A dedicated graphics driver is necessary to enable higher resolutions, color depths and refresh modes as well as 3D support.

Sound and network cards, printers

If Windows knows your sound or network chip, the card will work. Otherwise you will need the drivers. The same for printers.

Scanners

Scanners require a special software interface called Twain. Afterwards, your scanning software is able to access your scanner.