Whether you’re upgrading from a hard drive to an SSD, upgrading Windows or wiping your drive and installing Windows fresh, it’s a good idea to grab your drivers and make a copy first. Here’s how to back up drivers in Windows.
As any long-time Windows user will know, the operating system gets progressively more sluggish over time. It isn’t always Microsoft’s fault, of course. Your hard drive may fill up, or you may choose to install lots of programs and apps which start with Windows and run – unnecessarily - in the background consuming precious memory and CPU time.
We’ve explained how to make a slow PC fast, and also how to use the great Refresh feature in Windows 8 (Windows 10 has this too, but it’s not called Refresh) but if you’re not happy with the results are going to do a clean install, you may be wondering how to collect together all the drivers so you can quickly install them when a new copy of Windows is installed.
The short answer is that it’s not easy or guaranteed. There are many utilities – mostly free – which claim to be able to do this, but when you come to use that backup you may well find that it doesn’t work. The utility might not have backed up all the necessary files, and we’ve heard several reports of Windows throwing up errors such as “this driver is not digitally signed”.
The best plan is to go to your PC or laptop manufacturer’s website and download all the drivers (which will be the latest versions) for your specific model before you start the installation. This way, you won’t be left without networking drivers, and therefore no way to get online and download some.
However, you shouldn’t need too many drivers if you’re installing Windows 8 or Windows 10.
How to back up drivers in Windows: If you’re upgrading Windows
In-place upgrades of Windows keep your files, programs and settings. This also includes drivers, so generally there’s no need to have a copy for installing them afterwards. Occasionally a driver won’t work with the newer version of Windows, but in that case you’d have to download a new one from the manufacturer’s website anyway. With Windows 10, it’s typically your printer that won’t work, but in our experience, the driver is still there: you merely need to delete the printer in the Control Panel and add it again.
How to back up drivers in Windows: Clean install
Obviously drivers (and files, programs and settings) won’t be migrated when you’re installing Windows on a new hard drive or one you’ve formatted. However, if you’re installing Windows 8 or 10, chances are that it will find and install the vast majority of drivers automatically. As long as your hardware isn’t a decade old or really obscure, you shouldn’t have any issues.
The only driver you’ll want to install yourself is likely to be for your graphics card, as it’s inadvisable to run Microsoft’s generic version, or an old AMD or Nvidia version.
System drivers, such as the motherboard chipset and all of its features: networking, sound, USB ports etc., should work as expected. With laptops, you should find that the touchpad and touchscreen (if fitted) work, but manufacturer-specific shortcut keys may not.
In that case, if you haven’t managed to back up any drivers or utilities that are specific to your PC or laptop, head to the manufacturer’s website and look for the latest versions. In general, you don’t need a Windows 10 driver for Windows 10: drivers for Windows 7 and 8 often work fine. Just make sure you download the correct 32- or 64-bit version according to the version of Windows you’ve installed (64-bit in the vast majority of cases these days).
How to back up drivers in Windows
As we’ve said, there are many utilities which claim to back up every driver, so you can take your pick of the free ones, including DriverBackup! There are no guarantees, and we certainly don’t recommend relying on these to do a perfect job.
Instead, you should download the latest network, audio, graphics, chipset and other drivers from your hardware manufacturer’s website. Note that you will generally have to go to a laptop maker’s website for graphics drivers, as those you can get from Nvidia or AMD won’t necessarily work. For a PC, you can – and should – go direct to Nvidia or AMD.
You can also check your Downloads folder for recent drivers (in zip files, folders or single files with .exe or .msi extensions). These will typically be for peripherals and accessories such as printers, game controllers, scanners, gaming mice, graphics cards and activity trackers. Copy these – and the drivers you’ve downloaded from the manufacturer - to an external or portable drive so you know where they are and won’t get deleted when you reinstall Windows.
How to check if any drivers are missing in Windows
In Device Manager (which you’ll find in the Control Panel) you will see if any hardware isn’t working by a yellow triangle with and exclamation mark next to it. Usually, this appears because the driver is missing.
In the example above it's hard to work out exactly which device isn't working, but for USB devices just check everything that you plug into your computer as it could be a USB hub or some other USB accessory which doesn't have the proper drivers installed.
You can right-click on an item in Device Manager to try to get Windows to automatically find a driver, or install one manually.