After 20 years of driver problems, unreliable updates and a frustrating interface, Jon Honeyball finally runs out of patience with Microsoft
I'd hoped that my recent irritation over driver and update problems for Windows 7 had come to an end. Windows 7 has offered a fairly painful user experience since its release. Far too many things haven't worked, while Windows Update and third-party vendors' websites have fallen well short of being adequate.
To recap my gripes from previous columns, everything should be available through Windows Update: every single driver, every widget, every little bit of Windows stuff required to make my PC work properly. Having to go to a vendor's site to download stuff is a failure of process, while having to go to system component manufacturers' sites is even worse. I accept that this a hard line to take, but I've now had 20 years of updating Windows, finding drivers and trying to shoehorn the right component in and make it work properly, and to be honest I'm just tired of it.
Nowadays, there should be no excuse: we all have broadband, we all have enough local storage for drivers and information XML files, and we have plenty of computing horsepower to make it all work. The reality, of course, isn't so simple, and immediately falls into a trap whenever Microsoft wants to offer a service but doesn't want to offer it to everyone, or else its lawyers get in the way and basically screw the pooch. Microsoft says it can't ship third-party drivers lest someone in Des Moines, Iowa, decides that said driver has now become Microsoft's "fault" and decides to sue, or some such equally silly (but probably true) legal nonsense.
But driver problems have reared their ugly heads yet again this month, and I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that it's about a Dell PC yet again. Michael Dell must think that I have something against his company, but I can assure you that it's just a coincidence. My problem has been this: I've been trying to get to the bottom of why Wi-Fi is so unreliable - and I'm not talking about when the base station is down the road and you're trying to browse from the pub. No, I'm talking about when there's only a few metres between the laptop and the base station.
Now, if I'm to believe the claims of the Wi-Fi vendors, then this laptop should connect at lightning speed and the air should positively crackle with the data rushing through it. My cynicism begins with the knowledge that anything that runs at 2.4GHz is going to have a significant multipath problem, hence the arrival of MIMO technology, which is basically multipath cancelling using several aerials. But I've been having problems trying to get this laptop to sync at almost any speed faster than 65Mbits/sec.
Very occasionally it will hop up to 130Mbits/sec, but only for a few seconds, and then drop back again. I'm pretty certain there's no co-channel interference; there's only one other base station within reach, with a signal strength of -93dB compared to the -52dB of my own Wi-Fi base station, and that's sitting on channel 6 when mine is on channel 1, so there should be no problem here. That drivers were the problem only became clear after I visited Intel's site and discovered that there's a completely new version of the driver stack for Windows 7 compared to the one installed on my laptop, so I downloaded that, installed it and, hey presto, the built-in Intel 5100 AGN chipset decided it was okay to connect at faster speeds after all.
I also recently tried USB sticks from Netgear and Belkin, and once again it was difficult getting them to work at all with Windows 7. Even though they were brand-new, shrink-wrapped products, the driver CDs supplied with both appeared to talk only to Vista. Digging around on the websites of these vendors allowed me to download the right driver stacks, but they'd only consent to go on my PC after a thorough purging of all the recently installed old drivers from the supplied CDs.
On the Mac
You might hope that things would be better on other platforms, and indeed that's often the case. I never think about screen drivers, mouse drivers or Wi-Fi code for my Macs - they just come with the successive OS updates. But don't think that everything is rosy once you get away from Windows. My particular bête noir on the Mac platform is the driver stack for Epson's networked large-format A2 photo printers. Epson has taken months to produce any sort of update for OS 10.6, and worse still the drivers it's currently shipping still include a bunch of PowerPC chipset code, which shows how old and creaky this stuff is.
But the real slap in the face was discovering that the Epson Network configuration tool, which is required to make the printer work over Ethernet, had been updated from Version 2.2 to 3. The driver pages for the 4880 printer still list the 2.2 version, of course, despite version 3 being listed on the download pages for newer printers, and this is from a configuration tool that's supposed to be universal to all the company's products on the Mac platform. At the end of the day, I really do wonder how many computers (of any OS denomination or religious faith) are ever actually up to date.
A question for Microsoft and Apple
Why can't the big OS vendors such as Microsoft and Apple make it mandatory for any company shipping a third-party device driver that isn't available - for whatever reason - through Windows Update or Apple Software Update to have an email subscription model that tells the paying customer that there's a new version available? Or else that software auto-checks every week or so for updates, in the way that even the most humble of Firefox add-ons has no trouble in doing? It isn't difficult; too many vendors are simply too lazy to do it.
Take Nvidia, for example: I just updated the screen driver for a Windows 7 desktop machine and was impressed that the old driver could be unloaded and the new one put in place without it requiring a system reboot. Even so, while a number of different adjustments are available in the driver control panel, I haven't been able to find an option to keep me updated.