TEN YEARS AGO, when computers were simpler and people asked me for help, I could usually offer some informed advice. Today's PCs and operating systems are so complex that I can barely figure out what's going on with my own machine.
But occasionally, serendipity strikes, as it did last week when I got e-mail from a reader who complained that graphics and photos disappeared when he scrolled through Web pages with Microsoft Internet Explorer.
As it turned out, I'd experienced the same glitch with a new Dell computer. And by coincidence, the reader had bought exactly the same model, with the same STB Velocity video card -- and the same buggy video driver. I solved the problem by downloading a new driver from Dell's tech support page, and I passed the word along.
Now if you started scratching your head when you read the word "driver" in the last paragraph, don't worry. Most users have no idea what a driver is until a bad one comes around the bend and flattens their computer. Unfortunately, that happens all too often today.
At the most elementary level, a driver is a program that tells your computer how to control (or "drive") a particular device. There are drivers for video display adapters, monitors, printers, modems, CD-ROMs, scanners, digital cameras and other gadgets. Without a driver, your computer may have trouble communicating with these devices, or it may not be able to communicate at all.
In the early days of PCs, publishers of word processors, spreadsheets and other programs shipped their own drivers for particular printers and video cards. This was a messy affair because it made upgrading hardware a nightmare. Installing a ++ new printer meant finding new drivers for Lotus, WordPerfect and every other program that put ink to paper.
Modern operating systems such as Windows and the Macintosh OS attacked this problem by making device drivers part of the system itself. Once the proper drivers are installed, every program can use the same set of commands to make the printer or video card work.
This makes it easier for software developers to write programs and for hardware companies to introduce new gadgets, since they need only one driver for each operating system. Windows 95 comes with a huge library of drivers for existing gadgets, and most hardware manufacturers ship a driver disk or CD-ROM with new equipment.
This arrangement should also make it easier for you as a user, but all too often, something goes wrong. In fact, hardware makers are so anxious to get new gadgets out the door that they often don't bother to test their drivers thoroughly. Obviously, no company can test its drivers with 50,000 different programs under all possible conditions, but it's hard to believe that a major manufacturer like STB would ship a video card that bombs on a Web browser that's installed on virtually every PC sold today.
It's also hard to believe that a major PC maker like Dell (which can pick and choose its components) would ship a computer with a buggy video system -- or without a warning that its Web browser won't work properly. But unfortunately, this is the rule in the industry today, rather than the exception.
You may not notice a bad driver till a program asks it to do something unusual that causes a problem. Suddenly, your printer won't set its margins correctly, or your screen will fill up with gibberish, or your computer may crash altogether.
Video drivers are particularly nasty these days, thanks to a new generation of video adapters with built-in features that speed up 3D graphics. The programmers who write software drivers for these boards don't have much experience with them, and as a result, you're likely to wind up with a Web browser that won't browse properly, or a flight simulator that crashes and burns.
How can you protect yourself against buggy drivers? One way is to make sure you have the latest drivers available, particularly for your video card and printer. Most major hardware manufacturers have Web sites that allow you to download updated drivers.
Sometimes you can find the latest version on your computer manufacturer's Web site.
If your computer maker doesn't provide updated drivers, check out the manufacturer of the component that's giving you trouble. Many of them maintain libraries of drivers for their products, or they'll send you updated drivers on a disk for a nominal charge. Just make sure you know exactly what model printer or video card you have, because installing the wrong driver can cause a lot more trouble than you already have. If you aren't sure, check your computer's written specifications or look in the Windows Control Panel.
Finally, if you're buying a new printer or upgrading your video card, chances are good that the driver that comes with it is already out of date. So install the new component, but check out the manufacturer immediately and replace the driver if a new one is available.
Pub Date: 3/29/98