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Problems with Device Drivers on Macs and Windows

- 2007.02.02 -Tip Jar

Most of us connect various peripherals to our computers, andmost of the time we do so without any trouble.

With a Mac, it usually means just plugging in a USB or FireWirecable and waiting a second or two before your hardware isavailable.

With a PC, it's often the same - but it more often requiresclicking your mouse a few times the first time a new device isconnected while you point Windows to where your driver CD is ordownload it over the Internet.

Once that first configuration is over, however, both Macs andPCs tend to recognize their peripherals right away and behave aboutthe same with them.

And then there are the problems.

Problem drivers are nothing new, and they're quite common onboth Mac and Windows platforms. And don't even get me started onLinux, where many devices work well, but many others require an MSdegree and a stack of manuals to configure, if they work atall.

Why?

Back to Macs and PCs - what goes wrong? And what can be doneabout it?

In a nutshell, there are four types of driver problems that arecommon to both platforms. First is a conflict, where the device islooking for a resource that is either in use or doesn't exist.Second, we have instability, where the device is recognized, buteither a required OS component or (more often) the driver itself isso buggy as to occasionally crash. Third is a driver that, whileworking and stable, isn't well designed and thus performs poorly.Last is the rare instance where the available driver for yourdevice isn't compatible with the OS version you want to use, aphenomenon that tends to flare up whenever Apple or Microsoftrelease a new OS version.

When a driver works poorly or not at all, you have a fewchoices. The best option is usually to return the device (if youcan) and get a different one, hopefully with better drivers. Ifthat's not an option, try looking for alternate drivers.

Bad Installers and Bad Drivers

I bought a high-end HP LaserJet printer for my office, and whilethe OS X, Windows XP, and Windows 2000 drivers were nice and fast,the Windows Server 2003 driver simply wouldn't install. Theinstaller program would crash, and no alternative was available. Inthe end, I was able to expand the installer package and manuallyinstall the printer by pointing Windows printer wizard to thedriver, but it should have been easier.

That same printer was problematic on my G4 Mac mini and Power Mac, giving slow output and oftenreturning a buffer error, although it worked beautifully on theG5 iMac and MacBook (when I had it). After goingthrough the ringer with both Apple and HP, we (HP and I) finallyadmitted that the driver was buggy on the G4 platform. The HPtechnician pointed me to a driver for an older printer - and sureenough, it worked like a champ, though without the ability to printtwo-sided, which we worked around by printing 2-sided jobs onanother computer.

The point is that the driver on one platform, in this case G4processor on OS X Tiger, had bugs, while Windows and non-G4srunning Tiger were fine. This was a bad driver, as it would oftenfail to print and lock up the printer with an error.

Slow Drivers

Another example of a poor driver is for the Brother combinationprinter/fax/scanner/copier that I have at home. When I print to itfrom a Windows computer, the print job starts almost instantly, butfrom a Mac it takes about 40 seconds for the first page to startprinting - and it pauses for about 40 seconds between each page.Clearly the driver forces the computer to think about somethingbefore sending the job to the printer, as once at the printer thepage comes out just as quickly as it does on a PC.

...drivers often make a huge difference inperformance and stability.

It doesn't matter what the device, the drivers often make a hugedifference in performance and stability.

If you're a PC gamer, then no doubt you've spent time huntingfor optimized or hacked drivers to unleash higher frame rates on agiven game, with some gamers even taking the trouble to createdifferent installations of Windows with different drivers, eachoptimized for a different game on their particular video card.

Drivers That Lose Features

One of the computers in my office has an older ATI Radeon 8500card that effortlessly handles a pair of 19" LCDs, but there arequirks in various drivers for it. In Windows XP, we have it set upwith an extended desktop, where the monitor on the right is acontinuation of the monitor on the left. Everything works well,with options for the computer to think of both as one giantwidescreen monitor or as two monitors side-by-side (the way a Macworks).

The "one monitor" mode is kind of cool, but in use it's ratherannoying, as anything in the center is broken by the bezels of thetwo monitors, including the task bar at the bottom, the menu bar,and any windows that stretch across the break. Most annoying arethe startup/logon dialog box and task switchers that always appearin the center.

Of course, working as two adjacent monitors you have a "Primary"monitor, where all dialog boxes and whatnot appear, and a"Secondary" that is just more workspace off to one side. In use,the adjacent mode is far better.

Strangely, while the options for both modes are present in bothWindows XP and Windows 2000 (which I wanted to use), in Windows2000 the adjacent mode doesn't work. This is very strange, asadjacent mode is far more common, is built into the operatingsystem, and doesn't use any of the fancy ATI control panels. Butwith the control panel that's installed, it gets stuck in largemonitor mode, while with the control panel removed it gets stuck inmirrored video mode (where both monitors display the same image).In XP everything works perfectly.

Fortunately, most of the time things just work, but if yourcomputer is sluggish or unstable, before you blame Apple, Toshiba,or whoever made your computer, ask yourself if you've plugged inanything new recently. A new device driver or new application is,in my experience, often the cause of computer instability. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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