What is a graphics driver? Everything you need to know

Rear view of business man hands showing graphics driver on laptop screen

Computers have the amazing ability to take seemingly endless strings of binary code and convert them into brilliantly rendered graphics. But how exactly do they make this magic happen? The process involves both graphics hardware and graphics software. The hardware is known as a computer graphics card (also called a video card, graphics device, display adapter, graphics processing unit, or GPU), and the software is called a graphics driver. Both are essential to making the images on your screen come to life.

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What is a graphics driver?

A graphics driver is a piece of softwarea set of instructions, essentiallythat allows your computer to turn digital code (zeros and ones) into graphics, pictures, and videos. Also known as display drivers or video drivers, graphics drivers supply operating instructions to a piece of hardware (i.e. a physical component) called a graphics card, expressly dedicated to rendering images on your computer. Put another way, your graphics card is the machine that lets your computer display visuals. The graphics driver tells your graphics card how to do its job.

You might have owned a computer for years and never once thought about your graphics card. In most cases, there’s no reason you should. Apple computers use the MacOS operating system and have integrated graphics cards. This operating system automatically updates graphics drivers as part of system-wide updates, leaving you with little to think about. Most laptops on Windows and Chrome operating systems also come with both a graphics card and a graphics driver installed, likewise saving you the hassle. But if you use a Windows desktop PC, you most likely need to manually select and maintain your graphics device. This means knowing how to update graphics drivers.

3 major graphics driver providers

If you’re sourcing your own graphics card and graphics driver, you’ll probably deal with one of three manufacturers: Intel, Nvidia, and AMD. Each offers graphics drivers (software) that are specifically designed for their own graphics cards (hardware). In other words, you wouldn’t mix and match one brand’s software with another’s hardware. Here’s a brief rundown of the three main brands.

  1. Intel. Founded in 1968, Intel is one of the older companies in California’s Silicon Valley, specifically Santa Clara, where it’s headquartered. It’s a major chip provider to prominent PC brands including Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Acer. Intel’s signature business is central processing units (CPUs), but it also makes graphics cards and the graphics drivers that run them. What’s more, Intel is a pioneer in the world of computer sound cards, and the developer of the Intel High Definition Audio specification.
  2. Nvidia. Nvidia was founded in 1993 and is also headquartered in Santa Clara, California. Compared to Intel, GPUs are a larger part of Nvidia’s core business. Popular Nvidia graphics cards include the Nvidia GeForce series, which has a dedicated following among custom PC builders.
  3. AMD. AMD stands for American Micro Devices. It’s located in (one guess) Santa Clara, California. AMD’s core products overlap with Intel’s; both companies have a robust CPU business and both make graphics cards. AMD releases theirs under the Radeon product line.

Why should graphics drivers be up to date?

Graphics device manufacturers periodically roll out graphics driver updates, which you can find online and download onto your device. Whenever you’re given the option, it’s wise to install updated graphics drivers as these updates often provide greater processing power, enhanced energy efficiency, and smarter allocation of random access memory (RAM). Occasionally these updates can even protect you from malware that targets a computer’s graphics card.

Gamers in particular have a vested interest in keeping their devices up to date with the latest graphics drivers. Modern video games tend to place enormous demands on GPUs, and they’ll run at peak performance only if they have the most recent graphics driver.

How to identify your graphics driver on Windows

If you have a Windows PC, your machine could have a graphics card by any of the three major manufacturers. Just remember that graphics drivers only work on the graphics card they were designed for. For instance, Nvidia and AMD graphics processors won’t recognize Intel graphics drivers. Here’s a simple way to figure out which graphics card (and graphics driver) your Windows PC is using:

  1. Go to the search box in the taskbar, type “System Information,” and select it.
  2. From the System Information view, scroll down the left-hand menu until you see the “Display” option, and select it.
  3. Under Display, Look for “Adapter Type” and “Adapter Description.” These two line items contain the information you need about your graphics card, including the brand and model. This information will tell you which graphics driver is on your system.

How to update your graphics driver

Once you’ve identified your PC’s graphics card, you can update your graphics driver. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Download a driver from the manufacturer’s site. Go to your GPU manufacturer’s website to see if you have the most up-to-date graphics driver. If it’s time for an update, download the appropriate driver, double-click to open it, and follow the installation instructions. Use these links to access Intel graphics drivers, AMD graphics drivers, and Nvidia graphics drivers.
  2. Use Windows Device Manager. Windows Device Manager handles all sorts of software updates, including those for graphics drivers. To access it, go to the search box in the taskbar, type “Device Manager,” and double-click to open it. Choose your graphics card from the list of options, and right-click it. This brings up a floating menu with the option to “Update Driver.” Select it and follow the prompts to complete the installation.

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