Murphy's Law: Dreaming a Steamy Dream of One-Click Driver Updates


It’s hard to maintain any kind of neutrality when writing about Valve’s Steam service. Indeed, it’s hard to write anything about Steam without adopting a grin the size of a cartoon character and lavishing compliments on the service faster than needles firing out of a medic’s syringe gun.

I digress.

The recent partnership between AMD and Valve that put an easy-to-access, “download new video drivers here please” tool within the game-drenched packet manager has been an unexpected-yet-delightful addition to the service. And I’ve said it before: It’s about time.

Simply put, there’s no reason why—in an era when application mash-ups are almost more popular than the original services they combine—the art of downloading drivers for one’s various bits of hardware should be anything more complicated than clicking a single button. Some companies have attempted to pursue this one-stop-shop updating for their hardware drivers but, to be honest, I have yet to really find a successful version of this process that isn’t riddled with annoyance.

And it’s about time that the larger device manufacturers figure out a way to incorporate legacy updates into their driver packages—my lack of an ability to download video drivers for my laptop via Steam really exemplifies this. But I’ll backtrack for a second. If you haven’t figured it out, downloading new Catalyst drivers for one’s ATI videocard isn’t that specific of a process.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter which videocard option you select on the site’s, “whatcha using?” prompt just so long as your Radeon HD x-whatever is actually supported as part of the standard driver update cycle. Everyone gets the same “Catalyst” package—it’s a generic driver bundle that’s supported by a number of specific cards.

That’s all well and good, but why can’t companies just expand this, “genericness” to include legacy products as well? Heck, turn off the features that simply won’t translate between older hardware and modern operating systems / tweaks. Surely there are still some ways to squeak a little bit more performance or compatibility out of legacy devices for modern games and new operating systems. And don’t’ even get me started on laptop graphics? Can we not agree on a simple, generic way to deliver notebook graphics drivers that aren’t dependent on a stamp from, say, Dell, or any other laptop manufacturer?

That’s where the wickedness of Steam could be used as a tool for good. AMD’s “test program,” as I call it, should be a springboard to easy, non-Windows-Update-based driver replacements for as many gaming-related products as one can shake a stick at. That includes Nvidia; that includes laptop GPUs; that includes sound cards, mice, joysticks (for TIE Fighter, obviously); that includes anything that assists in your pursuit of prettier graphics, louder sounds, and more precise movements.

In fact, I wouldn’t even be bothered if said manufacturers wanted to get a little bit more out of the deal than mere gaming altruism. I’d be fine giving ATI, or Creative, or whomever their own information-drenched landing page on Steam just so long as the auto-updater tool worked perfectly—and before we get crazy, this would only be a method for updating core drivers. If you want updates to the 35 other programs that you get alongside a given hardware product, you’d have to look elsewhere.

And why stop with hardware? What’s to prevent Valve from dumping a new “Apps” tab on its service that gives ardent gamers one-stop-shop access to their favorite freeware/open-source/paid-for programs as well? Same deal: Updating these would be even easier than updating an app on your smartphone of choice, given Steam’s preference of automatically downloading new versions of games as soon as said updates hit the wild.

Man, talk about Steam too long and one gets feverish with ideas. I won’t get too crazy. I’ll just say this: Instead of taking the software world by its digital horns, Valve would be wise to learn as much as it can from this brief experiment in hardware management. Since Steam really is the de-facto digital download service for gamers nowadays (sorry, Impulse), there’s no reason why Valve can’t throw around its weight a little bit in the pursuit of good system management.

Let no PC parts go un-updated; let no newb realize that he or she is missing out on a world of free tweaks and upgrades; let no manufacturer bork up the updating process with incomplete, crappy tools.

It’s time to turn over every key in the driver kingdom to a company that offers a consistent, error-free, quasi-automatic means for keeping your hardware up-to-date—but in order to do so, Valve really needs to open the floodgates and start convincing the manufactures to do a better job of playing along.

Tech journalist David Murphy will never be able to play Civilization 5 on his laptop.  Sorry, France.  Hit him up at @acererak if you have a sweet gaming portable that you just don't need sitting around your house anymore...

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