Don’t get burned by driver-update scams

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

Although you can find free tools to help keep Windows and your other software up-to-date, you’ll have to pay to get the best tool for scanning your system’s drivers and downloading the updates you need.

I found some good driver updaters but also one full-on scam — Prosoft3D’s Driver Update 5 — that simply points you to Windows’ Device Manager and tells you to do the job yourself.

Driver Update 5 is a joke masquerading as software

Most driver-update products let you scan your computer for free before expecting you to pay. Prosoft3D’s Driver Update 5 is an exception, requiring a full purchase before you get to install or use it at all.

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Once you pay, the reason becomes evident: The product has only two features: It (1) opens Windows’ Device Manager for you and (2) displays a short message box with basic instructions on using Device Manager to update a specific driver. In other words, you pay U.S. $20 (or more) for a product that does what Windows Help itself does — and a whole lot less.

There is no scanning to tell you what drivers are out of date. You have to know that yourself and correct it more-or-less manually using Windows’ own tools.

The program’s installer prompts you to accept a folder where the product will be installed but doesn’t store anything in the folder or even create it to begin with.

Prosoft3D claims to offer a money-back guarantee and responded quickly to my request for a refund. Perhaps the company hopes to make money from people who don’t know about Device Manager or who can’t be troubled to ask for a refund.

The best updaters charge to freshen your drivers

The keystone of my PC-maintenance philosophy is to avoid fixing anything that ain’t broke. But then there’s that gray, twilight-zone area where your computer isn’t failing but is behaving strangely or experiencing the occasional mystery crash.

This may be a sign that one of your system drivers — the under-the-hood code that runs your monitor, your hard drive, your printer, and other peripherals — is out of whack.

From QuickTime to Java to Acrobat, many of the most common PC applications have their own methods of keeping themselves up-to-date. When it comes to device drivers, however, it’s not easy to determine whether you’ve got the versions your system needs.

Fortunately, there are a number of easy-to-use products that scan your PC, notify you if they find out-of-date drivers, and make it easy to download and install the updates. The downside is that the best driver-update products cost from $20 to $30.

What a program tells you about your driver is more important than the drivers it finds. For example, just telling users that a newer version is available says nothing about whether you should bother installing it.

I tested five of these programs in a quest to find which one provided the easiest and most effective way to update drivers. I used each of the five to scan a PC running Windows XP Pro SP2 in a virtual machine, and another system using Windows Vista SP1.

As you might expect, several of the programs found the same drivers to be out of date. But there were significant differences in their results.

I omitted VersionTracker Pro from this review because of the preponderance of lousy customer reviews it’s received in online forums.

I didn’t test the programs’ ability to install functioning drivers because this operation is separate from the initial system scan and identification of available driver updates.

$30 version
More info
Browser-based updater is clear and cautious

DriverAgent and its Driver Updates Web site ($30 membership fee) get the highest marks for providing clear information and taking a measured approach to updating drivers.

Unlike other products I tested, DriverAgent can be run from the Driver Updates site (and thereafter from a desktop icon); the program asks that you pay a membership fee rather than buy a product license.

Setup varies slightly from browser to browser. Be sure to follow the four-step instructions on the product’s Download page to avoid any problems.

Like those generated by Driver Detective, DriverAgent’s scans present you with a list of the drivers it found along with icons (and a helpful icon legend) providing information for each driver.

The program helpfully explains that even if a driver update is available for download, that doesn’t mean you need to install it. You have the option of downloading the update for backup purposes, if you desire.

In addition to the “good” (no update needed) and “bad” (time to update) categories, DriverAgent may signify a driver as questionable. That is, DriverAgent was not able to determine whether the file is out of date. In this case, the program advises you not to update unless you think you are experiencing a problem — a cautious approach I appreciate.

On my Vista test system, DriverAgent failed to detect the out-of date Intel PCI Bridge chipset driver that was found by Driver Detective, and RadarSync. But as Driver Detective’s help file points out, unlike other hardware, chipset drivers do not install any software drivers. Consequently, their up-to-date status may not be reported accurately by these kinds of products.

On my XP test PC, DriverAgent marked several drivers as “good but with download available” that DriverDetective had marked as “out of date.” Since my computer appeared to be running just fine, I consider DriverAgent’s a more reasonable label.

DriverAgent had no problems downloading the few sample driver files I requested as a test.

$40 version
More info
Clear update info, but too many flagged drivers

Driver Detective is the best standalone driver updater I looked at, but the program has one flaw: It may push more updates than your system actually needs.

In part because it installs Microsoft’s .NET Framework 2.0 (if you don’t already have it on your PC), Driver Detective’s installation and startup of Driver Detective ($40, but sometimes offered at $30) is one of the slower products to get going. But after the initial installation, the program’s scanning proceeds at a pace comparable to that of other products.

Driver Detective’s interface is straightforward: You begin by clicking the big Scan button to analyze your system. The result is a list of system drivers, which you can filter — for example, to show only out-of-date drivers.

Icons indicate the status of listed items. If a driver needs attention, additional icons may appear to the right of its entry. A helpful icon legend to the right of the list clarifies the meaning of each symbol. You can hide this list once you become familiar with it.

Like the other updaters I looked at, Driver Detective includes an option to download a selected driver. The program may or may not be able to launch the driver (it varies with the driver). For drivers the app can’t launch itself, the entry’s “Open” button shows you the driver’s location in Explorer so you can run its installer from there.

Another useful feature is the program’s ability to store a history of drivers you downloaded. But unlike DriverAgent, Driver Detective doesn’t provide download access to drivers that aren’t out of date.

Driver Detective is a very good product, but the program flags every driver for which an update is available with scary red icons, which strikes me as overzealous. In one case, the out-of-date driver was only two months older than the newer one.

Despite the program’s proclivity to push more updates than you may need, Driver Detective is the best updater for people who need a product that doesn’t run in a browser.

UPDATE 2008-08-06: The review of SimplisIT’s DriverMagic has been removed because the vendor is no longer supporting the product.

Free version
More info
The one free updater comes with sneaky installer

RadarSync 2008 Free Edition is the only product I tested that won’t cost you a dime. It also claims to update not just drivers but applications as well.

The installer is conventional, but it tries to install a browser toolbar and a separate free-trial product, so be sure to uncheck those options if you don’t want them.

In my tests, RadarSync found only one outdated driver on the Vista PC (which uses the aforementioned PCI chipset). The program fared better on my XP system, producing results comparable to those of the more conservative DriverAgent.

In addition, RadarSync also found some out-of-date software (not just drivers). If this is useful to you, it won’t cost you anything to use RadarSync either in place of or in addition to a related product.

RadarSync also gets points for providing useful information when you click Details for chipset drivers. The program pointed out several issues that the newer drivers will not correct.

The RadarSync site says that the $30 paid version includes tech support, omits advertising, and lets you schedule automatic updates. For my money, I’d stick to the free version.

Readers each receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice for sending tips we print. Send us your tips via the Windows Secrets contact page.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-07-31: