What Is a Network Driver?

Erik Neilson

A network driver is a software program that controls a device used to connect a computer to a network.

Much of what defines both work and personal computing for today’s users relies upon network drivers for streamlined functionality.
Much of what defines both work and personal computing for today’s users relies upon network drivers for streamlined functionality.

Network drivers control the interface between a computer and a given network. It is familiar with the protocol being used by the computer network, creating a unique identification for the computer that can be used in the system. As information is exchanged between the computer and the network, the network driver converts it into usable formats. The network driver also provides feedback to the user about the status of the network so that people know at all times when they are connected, at what speed, and if there are any problems with the network.

Network drivers are instrumental in allowing network computers to connect to both wired and wireless network environments.
Network drivers are instrumental in allowing network computers to connect to both wired and wireless network environments.

Computers can have one or more networking devices, including wireless cards or wired ethernet cards, for example. Without network drivers, these devices cannot work properly and may have trouble accessing the network or executing commands from the user.

A wi-fi router is one example from a long list of devices that require the right network drivers to function properly.
A wi-fi router is one example from a long list of devices that require the right network drivers to function properly.

What Does a Network Driver Do?

Many people wonder what the primary function of network drivers is. In general terms, any device driver acts as an interface between the 'abstract' view of the hardware that the operating system has, and the 'physical' chipset that actually exists on the board. This abstraction layer allows different hardware from different vendors to be used across many different operating systems. It also allows 'software' devices (such as a network loopback device) to be implemented that don't have any underlying hardware to control.

While driver updates used to be delivered via CD-ROM, most of today’s users download driver updates from the Internet.
While driver updates used to be delivered via CD-ROM, most of today’s users download driver updates from the Internet.

Each network chip will have different I/O registers, memory-mapped buffers, ways of detecting interface speeds, and all sorts of other fundamental technical differences. The job of the driver is simply to abstract those differences away so that the O/S has a common API for moving packets from the higher network layers down to the hardware (and vice versa).

Did You Know?

  • A network driver is a piece of software which activates the transmission and receipt of data over a network. It provides the data link protocol (Ethernet, Token Ring, etc.) which controls the specific brand of network adapter installed in the computer.
  • Network adaptors are different from drivers, being hardware components that connect computers to networks via integrated chipset, system on a chip (SoC) or other suitable connections.
  • Most modern devices require drivers to function properly, including printers, video adaptors, digital cameras and computer storage devices such as CD-ROM and floppy disk buses.
  • Device drivers—particularly on modern Microsoft Windows platforms—can run in kernel-mode (Ring 0 on x86 CPUs) or in user-mode (Ring 3 on x86 CPUs), the latter of which can help improve stability.
  • Network drivers play a key role in network management.

How Do You Find Your Current Network Driver Version?

Identifying your current network adaptor driver version on Windows 10 is a quick and easy process. From the Device Manager, open the dropdown list of network adapters and right click on the device you are looking to check. Click Properties, then click the Driver tab to see the driver version. You may also see an option on this screen to update the device driver, which is a painless way of ensuring that your device drivers are up to date at all times.

When Should You Update Your Network Drivers?

It is advisable to update network drivers when new versions of the software are released. These new versions can address security and device vulnerabilities that might otherwise become a problem for computer users, as well as expand functionality as much as is allowed by the device. Users who are unsure about whether or not they are using the latest driver can usually explore the properties on the network device to see which version of the driver software is in use and compare this information with data available on the manufacturer's website.

How Do You Install a Network Driver?

While many people may feel intimidated by the idea of installing network drivers on their own, the process is generally the same for all network devices and should not be confused as being difficult. Once you know how to update drivers, you will be able to better troubleshoot potential issues that may come down the road.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Locate and download the proper network adapter driver software for the device you are trying to get working properly. More often than not, this can be found on the manufacturer’s website.
  2. Find the driver installation file (likely in your ‘Downloads’ folder) and double-click to open it. In most cases, an installation wizard will run, and you’ll only have to follow the on-screen instructions to complete the installation.
  3. Next, click Start > Control Panel > System and Security > Device Manager.
  4. Click the “+” symbol next to “Network Adapters.” If the installation has been performed successfully, you will see your network card listed here with an exclamation mark next to it.
  5. From here, you can also manually update your device drivers via a zip file by clicking “Update Driver Software” and running the driver updater.

Testing and Troubleshooting Your Network Driver

It’s not uncommon for devices to be in conflict with one another, resulting in poor network access or stability. To test and troubleshoot your network driver, simply go to Control Panel > System and Maintenance > System > Device Manager > Network Adapters. From here, you’ll have a list of the drivers for your network adaptors as well as their properties, which you can right-click to view. Ensure that the correct drivers are enabled and that there are no conflicts, which can also help you to identify whether or not you may have a hardware problem on your hands, ie: a bad network card.

Network drivers play a crucial role in today’s increasingly interconnected digital world. By keeping your drivers updated on a regular basis, you can ensure seamless connectivity and a more enjoyable experience browsing the web.

Network drivers help complex systems communicate with each other without encountering any issues in the process.
Network drivers help complex systems communicate with each other without encountering any issues in the process.
Erik Neilson
Erik Neilson

Erik Neilson is a professional writer and editor based in Portland, ME. With 12 years of experience and a broad, diverse background, Erik provides written content of the highest quality to agencies, organizations and print/digital media outlets.

Neilson's work spans a wide range of spaces and disciplines, from copywriting in the tech, government, healthcare and energy efficiency sectors to journalism and editorial calendar development for a popular culinary arts magazine.

In his spare time, Erik enjoys cooking for friends and family, sharpening his woodworking skills and performing his original music in a live setting.

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Discussion Comments

Melonlity

@Markerrag -- that's not always true. There are a lot of computers out there without built in wireless and that means they have to install a wireless adapter that will almost always require the installation of drivers.

For some reasons, devices like that often "phone home" and inform you that you need an update.

Logicfest
@Markerrag -- it is convenient those drivers are often invisible but that can be a problem. Let's say that a bunch of hackers get together and find an exploit in a common wireless driver. I don't know about you, but my computer doesn't regularly check for updates of network drivers so how would I know about an update unless I manually searched for one from the manufacturer?

While I'm fairly sure a lot of computers search for network and other integral hardware drivers, I know for a fact a lot of them do not. Keeping a driver current is hard for a lot of people unless they work at it. That requires knowing how to update the driver manually and a lot of people either don't know how to do that or don't bother to learn.

Markerrag

What is interesting is that most people with modern computers will never deal with a network driver. Those are typically bundled in with the operating system on a new computer and the same is true if someone upgrades the OS. Those simply load in memory when the computer boots and the user doesn't deal with it all. It's there, it works so why mess with it or even bother learning about it?

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