Finding drivers for unidentified hardware is perhaps the most frustrating task involved in computer services. It is a time consuming operation, aggravating to the technician, and often requires a continuous boot and reboot process. Research seems to pay off. A specific driver shows promise. But upon attempted install, it is rejected by the operating system. Now a failed install is one problem, but sometimes the wrong driver can bring about a complete system crash. In this event, even “safe mode” may fail to boot. This amounts to a dead OS and a serious restoration problem.
With over twenty-five years in computer service, I still grit my teeth when an operating system fails to identify the installed hardware. No matter what version of Windows is running, the “driver files search results” screen will look something like figure one.
And the dark cloud of finding drivers for unknown products (no model numbers) suddenly looms over my day.
When Microsoft Windows installs correctly, accurately identifies all hardware and associated drivers, and is then ready for the loading of application software it is an aid and a service to business and personal pursuits. But take away the audio drivers, and the musician’s task becomes impossible. Strip out the printer driver, and the author loses the touch and feel of printed material. Crash the video driver and the animation specialist is crippled. Crash the video to the maximum, and the operating system goes completely down.
So where should the search for drivers begin?
First, come to a full understanding that a complete system crash can be the end result of any mismatched hardware to driver situation. Thus certain preliminary steps should precede any efforts to correct an unknown driver problem. A current hard drive backup is the most complete solution to this threat. Several online companies offer free basic versions of their hard drive backup software. If you have the time, and the available storage space, make this your first priority.
If a full backup does not fit your schedule, at least backup your Windows registry. The steps are simple, and it may preserve your youth. As an added precaution, you may want to burn the backup to a floppy drive or a CD.
The following links to the Microsoft support site will detail registry backup methods for different versions of Windows:
· 98 – http://support.microsoft.com/kb/256419
· 2000 – http://support.microsoft.com/kb/322755
· XP – http://support.microsoft.com/kb/322756
· Vista – http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-vista/Back-up-the-registry
· 7 – http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows7/Back-up-the-registry
As an additional precaution, you may want to create a bootable CD. Though various methods for doing this are available, I find that Bart's Preinstalled Environment (BartPE) is free software that functions without error. Further details can be viewed at the following website: http://www.nu2.nu/pebuilder/.
Be sure that your registry backup is included on the created boot CD.
You can also create a system restore point. If working under Vista, perform the following steps:
· Go to, “Control Panel,” from your start menu and then
· Open the “Backup and Restore Center”
· Under tasks, select “create a restore point or change settings”
· Select a suitable destination, and then click “Create”
· Restore is a matter of repeating these procedures, choosing “Restore” rather than “Create”
Looking now at some of the process involved in finding drivers for unknown products (no model numbers), let’s address the missing video driver that is displayed in figure 1. Windows has already installed a default VGA driver, or else we would not have a screen display to view. So it is safe to select the “skip driver installation” option, and then click “finish” so that the OS will complete this stage of the procedure.
Figure 2 illustrates the screen properties as available through a basic VGA display driver. Note that the maximum colors are 16; the maximum screen resolution is 640*480. Most modern applications will not function within these display limitations.
In modern computing, two hardware components with associated drivers are completely indispensable. We must have some form of video display. When Windows installed a default VGA driver, the basic function ability of this first issue was sufficiently addressed. We can use the machine for driver processing purposes. Next, we will need Internet access. This means a network card with an appropriate driver must be installed on the computer system.
Figure 3 is a screen shot of the Window’s 2000 Pro device manager. Microsoft likes to change the location and access methods of “device manager” – this promotes the illusion of an OS upgrade – so I will not walk through a step-by-step of how to get here. I want you to note, from the screen shot, how a yellow question mark is placed over the video controller. This is what we are trying to repair. Network adapters are listed directly above the video listing. In this instance we have a working 3com network card.
Now if you have no other machine from which to work, and if your system lacks a driver for the network card, you may well be dead in the water. You might try defaulting to a basic 3Com or NE2000 network driver, but keep in mind that a faulty device driver can result in a complete system lockup. Thankfully, many modern network cards are present in the Windows generic kernel.
As we set about the task of finding drivers for an unknown product, this article assumes that your major issue is not in how to select and install a driver, but rather in how to find the correct driver. I leave the rest of this subject matter as is.
Name brand computers usually provide a web site with their own drivers and problem solutions. Yet even top names have produced some generic computers.
Figure 4 is a shot of an ESC K7SEM motherboard. This unit is located inside of an unmarked IBM school desktop system. Notice mid-picture. The ESC model number is located between the white PCI slot and the brown AGP slot. Though you may not see it clearly in the picture, the part number also includes a motherboard revision number. As all components: video, audio, network, modem, mouse, etcetera are motherboard inclusive, this number provides the resource as to locating any drivers required by this computer system. The system had no external identification. Opening the computer case provided the only means of acquiring this number.
When dealing with unidentified computers and drivers that the OS cannot isolate, there are two methods of approach. The first, and what I believe is really the most sensible method is that of opening the case. Though not every device will be stamped with a manufacture’s name, none have ever failed to be marked with a part number. Finding drivers then becomes a matter of Internet searching. The search fields might look something like the following: “+component +part number +driver”. The plus signs are used to force the search to include specific words. “Component” represents the name of the needed driver. “Part number” is to be the actual number as pulled from the part.
Driver detection software provides a second method of identifying components that defeat the OS. Though not always accurate, these type programs are quite efficient. I use them in conjunction with method one. Since the ultimate goal of finding drivers for an unknown product is to install without suffering a system crash or other software conflict, I count a confirmation between the two methods of driver identification as my mark to go.