Consumer Watch: Don't Let Driver Woes Drive You Nuts
Things were humming along just fine in Joel Baldwin's home office. Then his company sent him a new laptop PC running Windows XP. No sooner had he set up the new system than his HP OfficeJet K80 All-in-One device suddenly got a lot dumber--it still handled printing without a hitch, but Baldwin could forget about most scanning, faxing, and even copying.
You can probably guess the reason for the shutdown: lack of an essential driver to enable the OfficeJet--which was just 14 months old--to communicate with Baldwin's brand-new operating system.
And it seemed to Baldwin that HP was in no hurry to open the lines of communication between the two, issuing unfulfilled promises month after month that a driver was forthcoming.
Baldwin, a tool company manager who lives in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania, says, "It doesn't seem to matter to HP that [its customers] can't use its All-in-One printers. I'm sure [the company] is selling new printers that work under XP--why can't they come out with drivers for their printers that are out there now?"
In response, HP spokesperson Katy Doherty points out that XP shipped with a built-in driver for the K series of devices to allow basic print and scan functions. In addition, Doherty says, the driver Baldwin needed to obtain full functionality for his device is now available on the company's Web site (it was posted in June of this year, nearly eight months after Microsoft's release of Windows XP).
Although plug-and-play standards have helped reduce driver
incompatibilities and conflicts in the past few years, poor product support and
situations like Baldwin's--in which a peripheral maker effectively renders its
own products obsolete by delaying or ditching driver development for them--are
problems that continue to plague many users. They are also among the most
common headaches reported to
Customers' frustration is understandable. If you've shelled out
several hundred dollars for a high-quality printer or other device, you should
be able to use it--to its full potential--until
Fortunately, in many cases you won't run into driver problems during the reasonable life of the device. Many companies do a good job of producing new drivers to support older products, and Microsoft has grown more attentive to the issue when developing new OSs.
But if you have any doubt about the scale of the problem, you need
only look on the Internet to see just how many people run into roadblocks
because of driver issues. A quick search using the Google engine reveals well
over a dozen sites that are dedicated solely to helping PC users find
drivers--and that does not count all the sites operated by device manufacturers
with large driver sections. Some sites--DriverGuide.com and
DriverGuide.com even has a strangely alluring feature for the true driver geek--Driver Voyeur. The page includes a box that shows you, one by one, what drivers visitors are searching for at that particular moment. And it includes a ranking of the top 10 most sought-after drivers. Topping the hit parade are drivers for sound cards by Creative Labs, OPTi, and Yamaha; modems by Lucent, PCTEL, Rockwell, and U.S. Robotics; and video adapters by S3 and SiS Corporation.
The independent driver sites can be your best friend when you're madly trying to get your printer or scanner to work in time for a looming deadline. Not only do the sites have thousands of drivers you can search, but many also have an active community of driver hounds willing to help with workarounds and other suggestions if you can't find the driver you're looking for. DriverGuide.com, for instance, currently includes a searchable database of more than 77,000 drivers, as well as e-mail-based support, discussion and driver request boards, utilities, and tutorials--and it's a free site.
Many people in the technology industry argue that it's unrealistic to expect peripheral makers to continue supporting all their products indefinitely. "Ideally, they should [support their devices]," says Charles Simmons, president of ICentric Corporation, which publishes DriverGuide.com. "But there's an economic cost at stake, and there's a limit to what companies can reasonably keep up with. For example, it's probably not fair to expect a [peripheral maker] to continue supporting a six-year-old device under XP.
"Major changes in an operating system make driver development a nontrivial task," Simmons continues. "Many drivers have to be redeveloped from scratch, beta-tested, and fixed before they're released to the public, and all of that work is very time-consuming."
Some companies pass the cost of support along to their customers. That's what happened to Martin Varga, an electrical contractor in Montreal. Earlier this year, when he needed a Windows 98 SE driver for his Umax Astra 600s scanner, he went to Umax's Web site to download it. But after searching the site, Varga discovered that the company no longer offered free support for the three-year-old scanner. To get the driver, a Umax rep told him, he'd have to fork over about $15 for a CD-ROM.
Outraged, Varga turned to a third-party driver site and downloaded the driver he needed--for free. "In my view, [charging for a driver] is a flawed policy," he says. "Highway robbery is highway robbery."
A Umax spokesperson says that the company decided to sell some drivers on CDs because offering all of them online attracted so many customers that download speed at the company's site slowed. The spokesperson acknowledges that the company has "removed many of the older drivers in order to optimize FTP service," but adds that it plans to resume offering them as free downloads in the near future.
Ultimately, even if the maker of your printer, scanner, or other peripheral appears to be in no hurry to provide new drivers, you don't have to let your devices slide quietly into obsolescence. Here's a checklist of the tricks you can use to keep your add-on devices running:
It's probably impossible to avoid all driver problems. But if you get stuck, it's reassuring to know that the tools and resources you need to get back on course are as close as your browser.