Drivers are pieces of software that control the different devices in your computer. They help Windows talk to everything from your video card and printer to the intricate components of the motherboard. Manufacturers routinely release new versions of their drivers, which fix bugs or are more compatible with newer versions of Windows. Without those updates, you risk suffering slowdowns, crashes, and boot problems that can keep you from even turning your PC on.
You can manually update every driver on your computer, but it's not easy. From SATA ports and SMBusses to gigabit controllers and LPC interfaces, many PC components give even veteran nerds pause. For example, the PCI Bus, PCI Bridge and PCI Express ports are all separate components, and they all need their own drivers.
Driver update software automates what can otherwise be a complex and confusing process. It identifies all the different drivers on your system, figures out which versions you're running, and compares them against its master list. Most driver checkers are quite similar, but they all differ in which drivers they can find and support. The best updaters will give you the highest chance of finding all the outdated drivers on your system. None are perfect, but Driver Detective, Advanced Driver Updater and Smart Driver Updater come as close as you can get.
A few driver finders didn't make it into our lineup. Known as white-label software, they're each fundamentally identical to Advanced Driver Updater, a product from developer Systweak that's been licensed out to other companies. Since these white-labeled products all offer a fundamentally identical experience – save a few aesthetic changes – we only ranked and reviewed the original. To learn more about them, however, and about the process of white labeling in general, feel free to read our explanation, or catch up on one of the other articles on driver update software we've put together.
No driver updater can find every outdated driver on a computer, though most claim they can. Whether it's an old peripheral that hasn't been plugged in in a while, or the very Ethernet drivers that keep you connected to the internet, every product we reviewed missed something. The best driver updaters, then, are the ones that find the highest ratio of critical drivers, that offer the best features, and that are the safest to install. When you're making your buying decision, be sure to consider the following:
TTR Test Scan
In the Top Ten Reviews test lab, we ran every single product through its paces. We knew our test machine had 36 outdated drivers, and analyzed not only the number of drivers each updater found, but also how critical those drivers were to the test system's overall health.
Some drivers aren't that important – after all, if you have an old printer or camera you don't use anymore, you probably don't care whether its software gets updated. Other drivers, however, are vital to the smooth operation of your computer. Old graphics card drivers can cause boot issues or keep your monitor from working; old Ethernet drivers can malfunction if Windows downloads an incompatible update.
When our initial round of tests was complete, we assigned scores based on the two factors – the number of drivers found, and how critical those drivers were. We then verified our findings on a second test PC with its own set of outdated drivers. The higher an updater's TTR Test Score, the better it was at finding system-critical updates.
Driver update software doesn't just find and fix drivers; the best are driver managers, letting you backup and restore driver sets, monitor release dates, and even uninstall old drivers you don't need anymore. Fortunately, every single updater we tested will scan your system for free, only forcing you to register when you want to download and install updates. This effectively lets you try before you buy.
Some updaters will let you schedule future, periodic scans, much like your antivirus program scans for viruses and other malware on a regular basis. While it's usually not necessary to keep drivers up to date the very moment they're released, having your computer stay on top of the situation can stave off future trouble.
When you're dealing with software that manages your computer at a system level, it's critical that the updater be completely secure, retrieving drivers only from reputable sources. The best driver software sources its drivers from original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs – the very companies that made the hardware in the first place.
Some updaters will supply drivers from illegitimate sources, which poses a high risk for malware. Others bundle malware right into their installers. This malware isn't devastating – it will never cripple your computer – but it can be extraordinarily annoying. Bundled programs can install browser toolbars, software that changes your home page, or even pop-up ads that appear every time you navigate the internet.
Help & Support
No matter how great an updater is or how easy it might be to use, drivers are still complex and confusing. Eventually, you'll want to turn to someone for help. Most of the companies that offer driver update software are quite small, but they all have some form of customer service you'll end up speaking to. The best have telephone support – after all, there's no substitute for direct contact with another human being. Many also offer FAQs or even user forums where you can share your experiences with other users and ask questions of experts.
Driver update software comes in a variety of flavors, but when it comes to picking the best, nothing beats real-world testing. While your mileage may vary – after all, every computer is different, and every set of drivers unique – one of our top picks is sure to suit your needs. Be sure to take advantage of the free scan that every updater offers, and you'll have your computer patched up in no time.