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A Crash Course in Device Drivers
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Drivers that are unsigned, or with a signature that is invalid or cannot be verified by a trusted Certificate Authority, or with a digital signature that has been altered, can be installed by an administrator on 32-bit (x86) versions of Windows Vista but cannot be installed on any 64-bit (X64) version of Windows Vista.
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To make the issue of driver signing even more confusing, there are two additional levels of digital signing to consider. For most driver packages, the only file that must be digitally signed is the catalog file, which uses a .cat extension. It lists the files included with the driver package and provides hashed digest numbers that uniquely identify each file and confirm that it has not been tampered with. For drivers that start at boot-up on X64 versions of Windows Vista, the driver file itself must contain an embedded signature. In addition, any device that is used to play back media that uses the Protected Media Path (PMP), such as HD-DVD disks and other formats that use the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) specification, must have a driver that is signed using a PMP-PE certificate. You can verify the contents of a Security Catalog file by double-clicking it in Windows Explorer.
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In general, you should prefer WHQL-signed drivers, which have undergone extensive compatibility testing using procedures established by Microsoft s hardware testing labs. It represents a strong assurance that the driver follows installation guidelines and that you can count on it not to cause your system to crash or become unstable. A digital signature from another trusted source doesn t confer the same assurance of reliability but does provide confidence that the driver hasn t been tampered with by other installation programs or by a virus or Trojan horse program.
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Don t underestimate the negative consequences that can result from installing an unsigned driver that turns out to be faulty. Because hardware drivers access low-level functions in the operating system, a badly written driver is much more likely to cause STOP (blue screen) errors than a buggy program. Even a seemingly innocuous driver can result in sudden crashes that result in loss of data and prevent you from restarting your computer. Sometimes you will have to make the difficult decision of whether to install an unsigned driver or give up the use of a piece of hardware. If the hardware device is essential and replacing it would be prohibitively expensive, and you re using a 32-bit version of Windows Vista, you might decide that the risk is worth it. In other cases, the choice is more difficult, as in the case when you have to choose between a signed driver that offers a minimal set of features and an unsigned alternative driver that allows you to take advantage of special features that are specific to your hardware.
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Give unsigned drivers a workout
If you decide to take a chance on an unsigned driver, your best strategy is to back up your data first, install the new driver, and then thoroughly test it right away, without introducing any additional software or drivers. (Windows automatically sets a System Restore point when you install an unsigned driver.) Run every application that s installed on your computer. Try to run a few CPU-intensive and disk-intensive tasks at the same time. Open and save files, especially big, complex ones. Try running disk utilities such as Chkdsk and Defrag. If the new driver is going to cause problems with the hardware and software you currently use, you want to find out immediately after installing it so you can roll back to your previous configuration with as little hassle as possible.
Previous versions of Windows allowed users to change the default settings and completely eliminate warnings about unsigned drivers. This option is not available in Windows Vista.
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