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Hardware Made Easy

With Windows XP, setting up a new piece of hardware doesn’t require intricate installation instructions or brain-twisting dialog boxes. In fact, many devices literally configure themselves as soon as you plug them in. Most others can be up and running in a matter of minutes if you download the correct software drivers and install them correctly.


A device is a piece of hardware, which may be internal (that is, inside your computer) or external (plugged into a connecting port on your PC). A driver is the software that tells Windows how to communicate with a specific piece of hardware. If you don’t have the correct driver for a device, Windows can tell that there’s an unknown device, but it can’t recognize the hardware and therefore can’t help you work with it the way you want. A poorly written driver can cause unexplained hardware failures and can even cause your computer to crash.

Hardware comes in all shapes and sizes. Some devices are essential to the operation of your computer, such as your hard disk or video adapter. You can replace these devices with new, improved models, but it’s hard to imagine using your computer without them. Other devices, such as network adapters, are not required for your computer to work but are designed to be installed as upgrades. Typically, installing one of these devices requires that you remove the cover from your computer and slip the new device into a Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) slot. In both of these cases, you install the device once, and it’s permanently available for you.

Increasingly, devices are designed to be plugged in when they’re needed and removed when they’re no longer required. These devices typically connect to Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports. Digital cameras, scanners, and handheld personal organizers are just a few of the types of devices that can plug into these ports. This type of device is often referred to as being hot-pluggable. The first time you use a device, you must install the necessary driver or drivers. After that, Windows automatically loads the correct drivers and configures the device when you connect it, without requiring that you restart your computer.

Plugs, Ports, and Slots

These days, the average PC has a bewildering variety of places where you can connect a new device. Here’s a quick guide to help you figure out the difference between all these different plugs, ports, and slots.

USB is short for Universal Serial Bus. These days, just about every PC includes at least two USB ports. To use one of these ports, you plug in a cable with a small rectangular connector, illustrated here, that’s about the same width and height as a stick of chewing gum (the other end of the cable plugs into the device). If you buy a new digital camera, scanner, mouse, or just about any hardware addition, chances are it includes a USB connector. Don’t worry about running out of USB ports. If you use up all available slots, you can add a USB hub that contains extra ports. In theory, you can have as many as 127 USB devices connected to one computer, although the practical limit is much smaller.

Serial ports were once the most popular way to connect a modem or mouse to your PC, but these connectors are rarely used by new hardware devices, and an increasing number of PCs don’t include any serial ports at all. Serial ports come in two varieties: one with 9 pins, the other with 25 holes. (The matching serial connectors, of course, have 9 holes or 25 pins, as shown here.)

Parallel ports are also known as printer ports, because this was once the most common way to connect a printer to a computer. A parallel cable includes a 25-pin connector at one end and a Centronics connector at the other, as shown here. Parallel connections have been largely replaced by USB alternatives.

FireWire (also known as IEEE1394) is a high-speed connector used primarily for digital camcorders and, less frequently, for hard drives. FireWire ports are commonly found on Sony PCs and Apple Macintoshes but are rarely found on other types of PCs. You can add FireWire ports to a PC fairly easily with an add-in card. FireWire connectors come in two different sizes—one with 4 pins, used to attach to devices like a video camera; the other with 6 pins, for connections to a PC, as shown here.

PCI slots hold expansion cards inside your computer. This type of hardware is intended to be a more-or-less permanent addition to your computer, such as a network adapter or a TV tuner. To install a PCI card, remove the cover of your PC and carefully insert the card into the slot. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of messing with your computer’s innards, ask for professional help.

PC Cards are hardware add-ins that are roughly the size of a credit card. These devices plug into matching slots that are almost always found on laptop computers. Occasionally, you’ll see these types of devices referred to as PCMCIA cards. (This abbreviation officially stands for Personal Computer Memory Card Industry Association, but I think it really means People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms.)

The first time you connect a new device, Windows XP tries to identify the device and locate a compatible driver for it. Windows XP includes a huge collection of hardware drivers, which means that some devices work as soon as you plug them into your computer, with no extra effort on your part. If the driver isn’t included with Windows, you’ll need to supply the correct driver files when you first install the device.

What to Expect from Plug and Play

When the stars line up right, you can plug in a new device and it just works. Windows XP loads the correct drivers, configures the device for you, and makes it available for your other programs to work with. All this magic is made possible by a feature called Plug and Play, which detects the newly connected hardware device, identifies it, locates a compatible driver, and configures any required device settings.

When you plug in a new piece of hardware, Plug and Play messages keep you informed as to what Windows is doing. For instance, Figure 4-1 shows the message that appears in the notification area, located at the right of the taskbar, when you first plug in a device designed to read the Compact Flash cards typically found in digital cameras. As you can see, Windows can identify the device by name and even recognizes the manufacturer, ImageMate.

Figure 4-1. When you insert a new device, this Plug and Play message appears in the notification area.

Because Windows includes a built-in driver for this device, the configuration process is completely automatic and doesn’t require any extra work. After a few seconds, a second message appears in the notification area, announcing that the installation process is complete, as shown here.

What happens if Windows can’t locate a correct driver? In that case, after identifying the device, it starts up the Found New Hardware Wizard and asks you to specify where the correct driver files can be found. As I explain in the next section, this process goes a lot more smoothly if you’ve done your homework first.

Installing a New Device

Are you the impetuous sort? If so, you’ll probably be tempted to just plug in your new hardware and see if it works. Most of the time, this slightly reckless strategy works just fine, but every so often it backfires, leaving you with a device that doesn’t work properly and can’t be easily repaired. Instead of plunging headfirst into the Found New Hardware Wizard, take your time and make sure you do things right. You must be logged on as an administrator to install a new driver. Follow these steps, in order, and you’ll avoid the most common pitfalls.

  1. Find the correct driver. Ideally, the driver should be digitally signed and certified as compatible with Windows XP. Save the downloaded files to a convenient place, such as the desktop or the My Documents folder. If necessary, unzip the files into their own folder.

    See Also

    For details about how to unzip compressed files, see the section “Zipping and Unzipping Files,” on page 245.

  2. If the driver files contain their own Setup program, run it now. This step copies the driver files to your hard disk and updates the database of hardware drivers so that Windows can find the files later. If the downloaded drivers don’t include a Setup program, skip to the next step.


    Did your new device come with a driver on a CD-ROM or floppy disk? Don’t automatically assume that the driver is the newest or best one. Before installing the driver, check the manufacturer’s Web site to see if a more recent driver is available.

  3. Plug in the new device. If the new hardware is an internal device that plugs into a PCI slot, be sure to shut down your computer and disconnect the power before performing the installation. If the device plugs into a USB or FireWire port, you don’t need to shut down the computer; just plug in the new device.

  4. When you see the Found New Hardware Wizard, choose one of these two options:

    • Install The Software Automatically

      Use this option if you ran a Setup program to install the driver first, or if the driver is on a CD-ROM or floppy disk. Insert the correct CD or floppy disk, if needed, and click Next.

    • Install From A List Or Specific Location

      Choose this option if you downloaded the driver files and didn’t run a Setup program first. Click Next to continue.

  5. Follow the wizard’s prompts to complete the installation. The exact steps vary depending on the choices you make. Pay special attention to the following three options:

    • Do you want Windows to search for the driver files automatically and load the one it thinks is best? This option is easiest, but if you know specifically which driver will work with your new device, you might have better luck choosing the option to select the correct driver from a list.

    • Is the driver file you’re trying to install digitally signed? If so, it should install automatically. If not, you’ll see a stern warning message like the one shown on the next page. If you’re certain the driver is compatible with Windows XP and that a signed driver is not available, choose the Continue Anyway option. Windows automatically creates a restore point for you, so that you can undo the change if it turns out that the driver causes problems.

    • If more than one driver is compatible with your new device, the wizard might ask you to choose the correct one. If you’re not sure which one is correct, cancel the installation and do some more research.


      Don’t dismiss the warning about unsigned drivers too quickly. Digitally signed drivers really are safer, because they’ve been tested for compatibility with Windows XP. An unsigned driver can cause your system to become unstable or even crash. If you choose to install an unsigned driver, Windows automatically creates a restore point. If the new driver causes problems, you can always run the System Restore utility and roll back your system configuration to eliminate it.

Where to Look for Drivers

How do you know whether you have the best driver available for a hardware device? If you’re lucky, Windows Update will alert you to a new device driver when you look for updates manually (see Chapter 1 for a description of how to use Windows Update). If you have a specific Web address provided by the manufacturer of the device, you can also check there. You may need to use Device Manager (described in the following section) to determine the version number of the currently installed driver for comparison with the one available for download.

A much longer list appears in the Windows Catalog, a continually updated resource that is available from the Windows XP Help And Support Center. Click Start, choose Help And Support, and then click the Find Compatible Hardware And Software For Windows XP link. The home page lists featured products. To zero in on the specific device you’re investigating, enter part of the device name in the Search Windows Catalog box, or click the Hardware tab and browse through the list of compatible devices, which is organized by category.

Figure 4-2 shows a typical page from the Windows Catalog, with a list of compatible products.

Figure 4-2. Visit the Windows Catalog for a definitive answer to the question of whether a specific device is compatible with Windows XP.

The information on this page provides a neat summary of compatibility information for you.

  • The Featured Products at the top of the page are advertisements.

  • The list of products appears initially with certified products at the top of the list, arranged in alphabetical order by manufacturer. You can click any column heading to re-sort the list.

  • Some items in the list include clickable links that take you to the manufacturer’s Web site, where you’ll find more details. In some cases, that page also includes links to the latest downloadable drivers.

  • The most important item in the list is the Status column. If you see the Designed For Windows XP logo, you know the product has been tested by Microsoft and certified to work properly with Windows XP. In other cases, you may see the words Compatible With Windows XP, which means that a valid driver is available but hasn’t been fully tested and certified.

If you’re planning to buy a new piece of hardware and you don’t see it listed in the Windows Catalog, does that mean it’s not compatible with Windows XP? Not necessarily. Many products have perfectly good drivers that work just fine with Windows XP, but for one reason or another, the manufacturer has decided not to list them on this Web page. If that’s the case, you can check directly with the hardware manufacturer to see whether a Windows XP–compatible driver is available.

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