Windows 7 : Installing and Removing Hardware (part 1) - Using Hot-Pluggable Devices

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1. Hardware, Firmware, and Software Demystified

Hardware is any physical device used by the computer, whether internal to the computer (such as the CPU on the computer's motherboard), or attached externally to the computer. A discrete hardware component that performs a given function is generally referred to as a hardware device or just device for short. You can use numerous types of hardware devices with a computer. Printers, scanners, mice, keyboards, monitors, disk drives, digital cameras, MP3 players, modems, and routers are all examples of hardware devices.

Before I describe firmware, it helps to get a better understanding of software. Software is program code that is written to perform a given function. For example, all of the program code that makes up WordPad is software. Likewise, all of the program code that constitutes Windows 7 is software.

Device drivers are also software. A device driver is a program that serves as an intermediary between a piece of hardware and an application or the operating system. For example, a display driver enables Windows 7 to communicate with and control your computer's display. Likewise, a printer driver enables Windows 7 to communicate with and control a printer.

Firmware is also software, in the context that it is program code. The difference is in how the program code is stored. Firmware is program code stored in a hardware device, typically in read-only memory. For example, the program code that makes your Apple iPod or your digital camera work is firmware.

Generally, as a typical Windows 7 user you will deal with firmware only when updating firmware on your removable devices, such as MP3 players. You will be adding device drivers and working with Windows updates much more so than you will with firmware.

2. A Few Words About Device Drivers

As indicated in the previous section, device drivers enable the Windows operating system to communicate with and control devices. Although Windows 7 comes with a very large number of device drivers for a wide range of devices, most device drivers are written by and distributed by the manufacturers of a given device. For example, your video adapter's device driver was written by the company that designed and manufactured the adapter.

Device drivers are very much device-specific. That is, a device driver written for one device won't work for a different type of device. For that reason, make sure you have the necessary device driver(s) for a device before you install it. If you have just purchased a new device that requires a device driver not included with Windows, that driver will be included with the new device, typically on a CD. Because the version of the device driver was developed specifically for the device, you don't have to obtain an updated driver before installing the new device. However, you can certainly visit the manufacturer's Web site to see if an updated driver is available that adds features or fixes issues with the version you have. I recommend installing the device with the driver you have, then checking later for an updated driver as needed.

3. Using Hot-Pluggable Devices

Many modern hardware devices are hot-pluggable, which means you just connect them to your computer and start using them. There's no need to shut down the computer before connecting the device. Nor is there any need to go through a formal installation process after you connect the device. However, you should always read the instructions that came with a device before you connect it for the first time because sometimes you need to install some software before you connect the device. When that's the case, as stated earlier the software is usually on a CD that comes with the device.

Because Windows 7 includes a large library of device drivers, you can just connect a device and begin using it without going through the process of installing a device driver yourself. For example, you can connect any USB flash drive and begin using it right away. Because most digital cameras look and act to Windows 7 as flash drives, you can do the same with cameras.

Hot-pluggable devices generally connect to the computer through one of three main ports: USB, IEEE 1392, or PC Card (different versions called PCMCIA, Cardbus, and ExpressCard). We look at those in the sections that follow.

3.1. Connecting USB devices

USB (Universal Serial Bus) is the most common type of hot-pluggable device. USB is used by flash drives, digital cameras, some types of microphones, external disk drives, and many other types of devices. Like most technologies, USB has evolved over the years, and three versions of USB are currently on the market.

The main differences among USB standard versions have to do with speed. USB 1.0 and 1.1 have two speeds: Low Speed (1.5 Mbps) used by mice and keyboards, and Full Speed (12 Mbps), more often used by digital cameras and disk drives. USB 2.0 added a third, High Speed, data rate, which can transfer data at the much faster rate of 480 Mbps.

USB 2.0 is downwardly compatible with USB 1.1 and 1.0, which means that you can use a USB 2.0 device in a computer with USB 1.x ports. However, the device will transfer at the 12 Mbps speed rather than the 480 Mbps speed available only in USB 2.0. So you don't really need to know exactly which type of USB your computer has. If you plug a USB 2.0 device into a USB 1.0 or 1.1 port, Windows will display a message telling you that you'd get better performance from a USB 2.0 port. The device will still work; it'll just be a lot slower than if you'd plugged it into a USB 2.0 port.

There are three different USB plug shapes, named Type A, Type B, and Mini-USB or On-the-Go (OTG). The computer has female Type A ports, into which you plug the male Type A plug on the cable. The device might have Type A, B, or a mini-port. Figure 1 shows the symbol for USB and the general shape of USB ports on the computer. Examples of Type A, B, and mini-ports are shown to the right of those. The plugs are all keyed so that they only fit one way. Try pushing the plug gently into the port, and it if won't fit, flip the plug over and try again.
Figure 1. USB symbol, ports, and plug types.

Connecting a USB device should be easy, providing you've done any preliminary installations required by your specific device. The steps are as follows:

  1. If the device has an on/off switch, turn it off.

  2. Connect the device to the computer using the appropriate USB cable.

  3. If the device has an on/off switch, turn it on.

The very first time you connect a device, you might get some feedback on the screen indicating that Windows is loading drivers for the device. That message will be followed by one indicating that the device is ready for use.

In many cases, you'll get an AutoPlay dialog box after you've connected the device. Figure 2 shows an example. From the AutoPlay dialog box, click whichever option best describes what you want to do with the device. In the case of a hard drive, that would most likely be the Open Folder to View Files option, unless you were using that hard drive to store one specific type of file.

What's "Speed up my system" and ReadyBoost?

Some USB devices can be used to speed up your system with ReadyBoost. When you plug a flash drive into a USB port, AutoPlay options might include an option to speed up your system using ReadyBoost. ReadyBoost is a Windows 7 feature designed to speed up some operations by using flash memory as intermediary storage between the processor and the hard drive. It only works with USB devices that actually can play that role. Flash memory has fast random I/O capabilities, and therefore isn't supported by all USB devices.

Figure 2. Sample AutoPlay dialog box for an external hard drive.

3.2. Connecting IEEE 1394 devices

IEEE 1394 (often called 1394 for short) is a high-speed (800 Mbps) standard typically used to connect digital video cameras and high-speed disk drives to computers. The symbol and plug shape for an IEEE 1394 port are shown in Figure 3. IEEE 1394 also goes by the names FireWire and iLink.

1394a supports speeds up to 400 Mbps, and 1394b supports speeds up to 800 Mbps.

Connecting a 1394 device is much the same as connecting a USB device:

  1. Leave the computer running, and turn the device off (if it has an on/off switch).

  2. Connect one end of the 1394 cable to the computer and the other end to the device.

  3. Turn on the device and wait.

As always, what happens next depends on the device.

Figure 3. FireWire symbol and plug shape.

3.3. PC Cards

PC Cards, Cardbus, and ExpressCard cards are commonly used on notebook computers. The device is usually a little larger and thicker than a credit card. Figure 4 shows an example of a PC Card wireless network adapter.

Figure 4. PC Card.

Connecting a PC Card to a notebook computer is simple. Just slide the card into the slot, right side up, and push until it's firmly seated. As with USB and FireWire devices, you should get some feedback on the screen indicating when the device is connected and ready for use. How you use the device depends on the type of device you inserted.

3.4. Using memory cards

Memory cards are hot-pluggable storage devices. Figure 5 shows examples of some memory cards. Most memory cards are used in digital cameras and jump drives. You just connect the camera or jump drive to a USB port to access the content on the memory card. However, if your computer has slots for memory cards, you can also insert the card directly into the appropriate slot.

After you insert a memory card into a slot, you should get some feedback on the screen indicating that the card is ready for use. That may be in the form of an AutoPlay dialog box, or an Explorer window may open to show you the contents of the card. Either way, the card will be treated as a USB mass storage device, as discussed next.

Figure 5. Examples of memory cards.

3.5. Memory cards and USB mass storage

Memory cards and USB devices that store data act like disk drives when you connect them to a computer. As such, each will have an icon in your Computer folder when it's connected. Figure 46-6 shows an example where I have connected an external hard drive (Drive I:), a flash drive (Drive F:), and a memory card (Drive H:) through USB ports. Drive Z: is a mapped network drive.

Using such a device is no different from using any other disk drive. To see the contents of the device, open its icon. Use the standard techniques to navigate through folders, to delete files and folders, and to move and copy files and folders. 

3.6. Disconnecting hot-pluggable devices

Before you disconnect a hot-pluggable device from a computer, you might want to make sure it's not in the middle of a file transfer, or holding a file that you have open in some program. To do that, look in the Notification area and see if there's one that looks like the one pointed to in Figure 7. (That icon shows only when you have a storage device attached.) Note that the icon doesn't display a tooltip, but if you view its settings in the Notification Area Icons applet in Control Panel, you'll see that its name is Safely Remove Hardware and Eject Media.

To safely remove a device, click the Safely Remove Hardware and Eject Media icon. The menu shown in Figure 8 opens listing each connected mass storage device. Click the action you want to take from the menu.

Figure 6. External devices in Computer folder.

If it's difficult to reach around to the back of the computer to connect a USB or FireWire device, just leave that end of the cable plugged into the computer. Disconnect the cable from the device, and leave that end of the cable within easy reach for future connections. Or, get an external USB or FireWire hub, connect the hub to the back of the computer by its cable, and leave the hub on your desk within easy reach.

Simply click the Eject command for the drive you want to disconnect. The media will not physically eject from the computer, but Windows will close it and display a message that the device can safely be disconnected from the computer. You can then safely remove it from the computer.

Not all devices are hot-pluggable. Some require a more elaborate connection and installation procedures. Those kinds of devices are discussed in the next section.

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