Thursday, June 09, 2005

Set Up Hardware and Zap Trouble in Win XP

Ideally, once you have installed your hardware, you can simply use it—over and over again—without any need to dig into the Windows XP settings and make changes. Unfortunately, all too often, this ideal falls somewhat short of what actually happens. Sometimes, you have to reconfigure your hardware. Other times, you must reinstall it in order to get it to work. At still other times, you don't have a problem at all; you simply want to upgrade the software components to take advantage of new or improved features. Windows XP offers a number of wizards and dialog boxes to help you work with your hardware's drivers and settings. The most important tool, Device Manager, provides a central focus for this chapter.

Windows XP also contains a number of tools for maintaining your system. Because your hard drives constitute the single most important hardware component to maintain, this chapter also covers hard disk maintenance tools. Between the Device Manager and the hard drive utilities, you can keep the hardware on your system humming along smoothly.


Figure 8.1
Without a doubt, the Windows XP Device Manager serves as your best friend in uncovering and solving hardware problems. As Figure 8.1 shows, Device Manager displays a list of all your hardware arranged in categories with each item accessible by locating the correct category and expanding it by clicking the plus sign (+) to its left. This figure displays the list of three hard drives in this particular system as well as the display adapter (that is, the graphics card), the DVD/CD-ROM drive, the imaging device (that is , the scanner), and the mouse. Expanding the other categories details additional specific items.

Figure 8.2
Device Manager's usefulness comes to the fore when a device malfunctions. Figure 8.2 shows very much the same list as Figure 8.1, but, this time, the icons for three of the devices have an X through them. This X, actually in red, denotes a completely malfunctioning device. If a device bears a yellow warning icon, Windows XP needs additional information in order to have it function properly.

To open Device Manager, right-click My Computer, and choose Properties. From the resulting System Properties dialog, click the Hardware tab. In the Device Manager section of the dialog box, click the Device Manager button. After a brief delay, the Device Manager utility opens. Your first survey of hardware status takes place immediately, according to the following views:

  • If all categories display closed, with no individual devices showing, Device Manager does not know of any malfunctioning hardware. The device still might not work, but, from the standpoint of Windows XP, it works just fine.

  • If Windows XP sees any device as malfunctioning, Device Manager opens with that device's category automatically expanded to reveal the problem hardware. After upgrading to Windows XP or installing it for the first time, you should expect one or more devices to display as nonfunctioning, awaiting drivers.


    Device Manager gives you two major options for configuring your hardware devices: configuring the resources it uses and changing the drivers associated with it. Of these two, updating the driver happens more frequently because Windows XP has proven itself notably adept at managing system resources. Still, you can adjust system resources manually if you come across conflicts with the result that you can solve virtually all hardware problems from within Device Manager, except those in which the hardware itself does not work because of mechanical malfunction.

    Tip: If a hardware device stops working completely and you can't solve the problem in just a few minutes, you might have a mechanical problem instead of an electronic one. Consider removing the hardware device, and installing it in another PC if one is available. If the hardware still doesn't work and you still get no response from it, you can assume that it has bitten the dust and can be discarded or, in the case of expensive hardware devices such as printers or monitors, sent to a repair shop.


    To adjust the resources a hardware device uses, open Device Manager, locate the item you want to configure, right-click its icon, and choose Properties. Click the Resources tab, and uncheck the Use Automatic Settings option. In many cases, this option has been grayed out, which indicates that you cannot change the resources this item uses. However, if you can make changes, choose an item from the Setting Based On drop-down menu, highlight the resource you wish to modify, and click the Change Setting button.

    Figure 8.3
    Figure 8.3 shows the Edit dialog box for a specific hardware device (here, a communications/serial port). Choosing the Interrupt Request (IRQ) setting of 6 results—as the Conflict Information window shows—in a hardware conflict with the floppy disk controller. If this user never used the floppy drive, the conflict would probably cause no problems, but the function of the Conflict Information window is to help you avoid all conflicts completely. Click the arrow boxes until you see the notice "No devices are conflicting," check the hardware manual to make sure your device can function with that IRQ, and click OK.

    Figure 8.4
    Several hardware Properties dialog boxes offer tabs containing settings specific to that device type. For example, communications and parallel ports, which are typically used by modems and printers, respectively, feature a Port Settings tab leading to a dialog box where you can configure how that port should operate. Figure 8.4 shows this dialog box along with the Advanced Settings dialog box that results from clicking the Advanced tab on the Port Settings tab. Similarly, opening the Properties sheet for an IDE channel (that is, a hard drive controller) provides you with an Advanced Settings tab in which you can set the DMA mode required by some CD and DVD applications.


    By far, the most time spent in Device Manager relates to installing or changing device drivers. To access driver information, locate the device in Device Manager, right-click its icon, choose Properties, and then click the Drivers tab on the resulting Properties dialog box. To see the specific details about the driver, including the files this driver uses to do its job, click the Driver Details button.

    Figure 8.5
    Figure 8.5 shows the Drivers tab for a video driver as well as the Driver File Details information screen. Both screens display the version of the driver. This is extremely important information when you are considering performing an upgrade or a rollback. Before doing either, examine the driver version to make sure the action will provide you with either the newer or the older driver you want. Otherwise, your system might behave differently from what you had in mind.

    If you experience problems after installing a video driver, or if the driver manufacturer's Web site informs you that the driver contains bugs and should be uninstalled, click the Roll Back Driver button. This highly useful feature offers a one-click method of uninstalling the current driver and reinstalling the most recent one, which is typically an excellent solution for misbehaving hardware. Of course, if the previous driver also caused problems, a complete removal is a better idea. In which case, you can click the Uninstall button.

    Note:You can also uninstall some drivers via the Add/Remove Programs utility in Control Panel.

    To install a new version of a driver, click the Update Driver button. Doing so launches the Hardware Update wizard. Because you are supplying the driver on your own, choose the Install From a List or a Specific Location (Advance) option on the Welcome screen, and decide whether you want Windows to search for the driver on the subsequent screen. If you do, help Windows by narrowing the search. Click the Browse button to locate the folder to which you downloaded the new driver, and uncheck the option to search removable media.

    If you know the driver you want Windows to use for this device, click the Don't Search radio button, and click Next. This yields a list of compatible drivers from which you can make your choice, or, if you want to search for still more already installed drivers, uncheck the Show Compatible Hardware option, and drill through the Manufacturer and Model lists.

    Caution: If you decide to choose a driver manually, pay attention if Windows tells you it won't work with your hardware. In the vast majority of cases, Windows is absolutely right, and you risk negatively affecting your system performance by having the OS make the attempt.


    Sometimes, the hardest part about installing new drivers is finding them in the first place (see Chapter 7 for a basic list of possible locations). Windows Update (see Chapter 15) offers some drivers after they become available, but only those it has approved by digitally signing them (see the "Settings for Unsigned Drivers" section later). To update your drivers without the help of Windows Update, and, therefore several months before they acquire the official Windows XP stamp, you need to do some digging.

    As you probably expect, the digging starts and ends on the Internet. Perhaps in no way has the Internet helped PC owners more directly than in the ready availability of software updates with hardware drivers among the primary benefactors. Hardware manufacturers routinely place new drivers in the Support or Downloads section of their Web sites, which lets you acquire them easily and keep your hardware up-to-date.

    To locate a driver, do the following:

    1. Open your Web browser, and go to the manufacturer's Web site.

    2. Look for the Support (Software Support, Technical Support) or Downloads (Software Downloads, Driver Downloads) section of the site, and click the link.

    Figure 8.6
    3. Find the product you wish to upgrade. Depending on the company, this can be a tricky prospect. For ATI video cards, for example, drivers are listed in a number of ways with some drivers available in a package called Catalyst. You need to work through the hardware identification process to end up at the download site. Numerous manufacturer sites work the same way even though some offer a more direct route to the goal. Figure 8.6 shows the resulting download location for a particular video card, which was made more difficult by the fact that it was a discontinued product and thus in a separate place on the site (several mouse clicks required in total).
    Figure 8.7
    Figure 8.7 shows the location for a different manufacturer. This one required only three mouse clicks.

    4. Click the download link, and, when the Download dialog box appears, click Save to store the driver on your hard drive.

    5. Navigate to the folder in which you downloaded the driver, and read the instructions, which are often contained in a Readme file. In the case of a Zip or .exe file with no other files, launch the file, extract the files, and proceed from there.

    Caution: Many manufacturers offer the most recent hardware drivers in an unfinished state. Called beta drivers, this software has progressed in the company's estimation to the point where it invites the public to experiment with the drivers on their own systems. Unless you want a specific feature on the latest beta drivers, don't install them because until they undergo further testing you risk malfunctions of various kinds. If you decide to install them anyway, make absolutely sure to create a restore point by using the System Restore utility (described in Chapter 16) so that you can back out of the process if Windows starts misbehaving.


    Microsoft has strict criteria for deeming whether drivers are fully compatible with Windows XP. To this end, it has created a process called Driver Signing in which the company digitally signs a device driver to provide confirmation that the driver has passed the necessary tests for its inclusion. If you install a driver that bears a Microsoft digital signature, Windows XP installs the driver with no questions asked. If the driver does not bear a digital signature, Windows responds with the Unsigned Driver dialog box that explains the situation and asks if you want to continue with the installation.

    If you click the Continue Anyway button, Windows automatically sets a restore point that you can use in conjunction with the System Restore utility if the installation causes problems (see Chapter 16) and then proceeds to install the driver.

    Even though Microsoft offers no assurances that unsigned drivers will work, if you download the driver from the Web site of a reputable company, which includes any major hardware manufacturer, you rarely need to worry about unsigned drivers causing problems for your system. Because Windows creates the restore point, the worry decreases even more. Generally speaking, you should feel free to click Continue Anyway if you want the latest driver on your system.

    You can change what Windows does when it encounters an unsigned driver during the installation process. On the Hardware tab of the System Properties dialog box, click the Driver Signing button, and choose one of the following options:

  • Ignore: Windows lets you install all the unsigned drivers you want—neither informing you nor warning you. Obviously, you take some chances with this option.

  • Warn: Windows displays a dialog box each time you begin an unsigned driver installation that asks if you wish to continue. This is the default option.

  • Block: Windows never asks you about the unsigned driver. Instead, it blocks the installation, which completely prevents you from installing unsigned drivers.

    If you have an Administrator account, you can specify that the selection option apply to all users on the PC who attempt to install unsigned drivers. To do so, check the Make This Action the System Default option in the bottom section of the Driver Signing Options dialog box.


    Sometimes, you need specific hardware for specific purposes, and you want the ability to load the drivers for that hardware into your system, while excluding other drivers, when you boot Windows. The Hardware Profiles feature allows you to configure your system in multiple profiles with each profile loading only a portion of the available hardware.

    For example, if you use your PC for sound recording, you might discover that your external professional-quality sound card can conflict with the internal sound card when it comes to interacting with your recording software. You might also discover that you need the internal sound card to capture video from your digital camera. One solution is to let Windows load normally and then open Device Manager and disable the unwanted device. However, if you find yourself doing this regularly, you can save time by creating a separate hardware profile for each use.

    When you create a second hardware profile (Windows creates a default profile on installation), you add a step to the boot process. Early in the startup, Windows asks which profile you want to use. Highlighting that profile on the list and pressing Enter instructs Windows to continue the boot process and load only the hardware drivers included in the profile. This disables the others and thereby avoids conflicts. You can create as many profiles as you wish.

    To create a profile, follow these steps:

    1. Open the System Properties dialog box by right-clicking My Computer and choosing Properties.

    2. Click the Hardware tab and then the Hardware Profiles button.

    Figure 8.8
    3. In the Hardware Profiles dialog box (Figure 8.8), highlight the current profile (called Profile 1 by default), and click the Copy button. This action creates an identical copy of the default profile for you to change by excluding specific devices.

    4. Highlight the new profiles (labeled Profile 2 by default), and click Rename. Give the profile a name you'll remember. Click OK to exit the dialog box.

    5. Reboot your PC. Watch for the profiles screen, and choose the new profile. Press Enter to continue the reboot.

    6. Open System Properties again, and click the Hardware tab. Click the Hardware Profiles button, and check to see that the new profile is indeed the current profile. Assuming it is, close the dialog box.

    7. Click the Device Manager button to open Device Manager.

    8. Locate the hardware device you wish to exclude from this profile, right-click it, and choose Properties.

    9. At the bottom of the resulting Properties dialog box for that device, click the down arrow beside the Device Usage menu. Choose the Do Not Use This Device in the Current Hardware Profile (Disable) option.

    10. Click OK to exit this dialog box, and click OK again to exit Device Manager.

    11. Reboot your PC, and select this new profile again. This time, Windows boots with that device disabled.

    Tip: You can edit a profile as many times as you wish and make it increasingly specific to your needs.

    If you decide you no longer need a profile, open the Hardware Profiles dialog box, highlight that profile, and click the Delete key.


    Windows XP provides several tools for keeping you hard drive in good working order. By opening the Properties dialog box for a specific hard drive, you can check the drive for errors, defragment its files for greater efficiency, or back up the data to a separate location. This section covers the first two options whereas data backup is covered in Chapter 13.

    Figure 8.9
    To perform these two important maintenance activities, open My Computer, and right-click on the hard drive you wish to maintain. Click the Tools tab to reveal the options. Figure 8.9 shows the result.

    As its name suggests, the Error-checking option scans your hard drive for errors. (In earlier versions of Windows, the tool bears the name ScanDisk). You should use this tool whenever saving a document or copying files seems to take longer than usual or once every other month or so to make sure the surface of your hard drives bear no signs of damage.

    Clicking the Check Now button opens the Check Disk dialog box for the selected drive. You can choose either or both of the following options:

  • Automatically fix file system errors: This option instructs Windows to make repairs to the file system if it finds any during the scan. Windows needs to take complete control over the drive in order to start this process, so, if the drive is currently in use, Windows asks if you want to schedule the disk scan for the next time you start the PC. If you don't say Yes, the disk check won't happen at all so the choice is really between scheduling the scan or canceling it.

  • Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors: As you use your hard drive, it can develop bad locations, which are known as bad sectors. Bad sectors tend to spread as Windows tries to write data to them with the result that your drive eventually slows down and sometimes renders data writing (such as file saving) difficult, or even impossible. If you suspect that your hard drive contains errors, check this option to allow Windows to locate them and block them off permanently by moving whatever data they contain to a good sector on the disk. Once again, Windows needs complete command over your hard drive to execute this command, and, if it does not, a dialog box asks if you want to schedule the repair for the next time you boot your PC. If you do choose this option, be prepared for a long wait while it does its job.

    Note that you don't need to select both options. If you choose the second option, Scan For and Attempt Recovery of Bad Sectors, Windows automatically enacts the check for file system errors as well. Consider the bad sector check the complete maintenance package when it comes to repairing errors on the hard drive.

    The second hard disk tool, Defragmentation, speeds up hard disk access by moving all the parts of a file to contiguous sectors. On a brand new PC, when you save files to a hard drive, all components of the file stay together in one place. However, when you delete a file, you make additional areas on the hard drive available by, in effect, opening a hole in the middle of other data. When you save the next file to the drive, that file fragments and stores as much as it can in the newly emptied location. The rest is saved on the next available location on the drive. The more you use a hard drive by adding and deleting data the more fragmented the files become.

    Figure 8.10
    The Defragmentation utility (more commonly called a defragger) rearranges the files to locate all their parts in contiguous areas. To defrag your drive, right-click it, and choose Properties to open its Properties dialog box. Click the Tools tab, and click Defrag Now. In the resulting Disk Defragmenter utility, highlight the drive in question, and click Analyze. Figure 8.10 shows the report provided by Windows with the suggestion that you perform the Defragmentation.

    Figure 8.11
    Figure 8.11 shows the result of clicking the Defragment button, either on the Report screen or the main window. The progress bar at the bottom of the window shows the length of time remaining while the Estimated Disk Usage After Defragmentation area changes during the process to reflect the reduced fragmentation visually.

    Tip: As with most other types of system utilities, third-party manufacturers such as Symantec and Executive Software offer improvements on the Defragmentation utility found in Windows XP. Symantec's venerable Norton Utilities suite features a fast and fully capable defragmenter called SpeedDisk even though Executive Software's Diskkeeper gives you an even faster and more powerful utility for this purpose. Whenever you're dealing with system enhancement software, it's a good idea to check what's available beyond the Windows XP package itself.


    Windows XP provides a number of tools for ensuring that your hardware works correctly and efficiently. By far, the most significant such tool for the hardware itself is Device Manager, but, when it comes to the proper maintenance of your hard drives, the error-checking and defragmentation tools can help significantly. You can buy third-party tools with additional options for both error correction and defrag purposes, and, as you get increasingly serious about your system, you should certainly consider their purchase, but the tools provided in Windows XP itself can help you a great deal. The trick with disk maintenance is not to forget about it until after the damage has been done; the trick with Device Manager is to visit it often to check on your hardware and to update

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