Is Windows 7 Really Checking For Drivers Online?

Windows 7 has an amazingly thorough collection of drivers available.  While some are built right into the OS, most need to be downloaded from Windows Update.  Depending on how you install Windows 7, this might not happen.  Particularly, if you don’t go along with all of Microsoft’s recommendations during setup (like turning on Windows Update and activating Windows right away), this can be a problem.

Often, it will appear as though Windows is checking online, but after a couple seconds, it will report that it found no drivers.  You might want to make sure this is true; it could easily be that it just didn’t find any drivers it’s allowed to download due to your current settings.

Here’s how to fix it.

First, activate Windows.  This never hurts.  Keys are free right now, so there’s no reason not to.  In theory, you shouldn’t need to do this, but I’ve encountered this issue a few times where activating Windows seemed to fix it.

Second, make sure Windows Update is turned on.  You don’t need to set it to automatically install everything.  I have it set to automatically download updates but let me choose what and when to install.

Third, make sure you’ve configured your system to allow driver downloads.  Go to System under Control Panel (the fastest way is WinKey + Pause/Break).  Then, on the left side of that window, you’ll see a link for ‘Advanced system settings’.  Click it and then select the Hardware Tab:


Click ‘Device Installation Settings’.  You’ll see a window like this:


If you have the same settings selected as shown above, you won’t get driver updates, even if you specifically choose to check online.  You can pick alternative settings if you want, but it really just makes sense to choose ‘Yes’.

Once you’ve done all this, make sure that Windows Update isn’t busy.  Finish installing any updates it’s working on.  Then, just to be safe, restart your computer (this shouldn’t be required, but certainly won’t hurt).  That should do it.

In theory, the second you save your changes in the Device Installation Settings window, Windows should automatically scan for drivers for any hardware that needs it.  Sometimes it even works.  If not, there are two ways of forcing Windows to check again.  The easiest, and probably the safest, is to just do another check for updates through Windows Update.  Any driver updates will be shown there, and you can install them just like any other update.

If you’d rather have a bit more control, go to Device Manager (click Start, right-click on Computer, click Manage, and then open Device Manager in the Computer Management window that appears):


Right-click the device in question and choose Update Driver Software:


Then, just click ‘Search Automatically’.  Windows should take care of the rest.  If you happen to have a driver – or you think you might, and want to see if it works – click ‘Browse’ and point it to the folder with your driver.  You can tell it to search subfolders, so don’t worry to much about picking the exact folder within a complicated driver package.  Generally speaking, Windows will install the driver if it finds one that works, and if it doesn’t, it won’t work anyway.  In theory, you can specify exactly which driver you want to use, but under Windows Vista and Windows 7, I’ve never come across a situation where this works.

If you ever have a choice, trust the Windows driver installation system over the vender’s setup program; they often do some pretty weird shit and sometimes install programs you really don’t want.

If your driver isn’t found online, and you don’t have a driver package provided by the manufacturer, you’ve probably come across some hardware that is going to take serious work to get running with Windows 7, if it’s even possible.  In this case, time to hit Google (or Bing?).  And good luck.


Copyright © 2010 Paul Guenette and Matthew Sleno.