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The Importance of Drivers
In order to take advantage of the full power of an advanced video card, its acceleration features must be exploited. Special drivers are written by the video card (or video chipset) manufacturer for each operating system they support, which interface the operating system to the hardware. The principle behind operating systems like Windows is that the programmers writing the software use a standard interface to the operating system without worrying about the hardware. Then, each hardware manufacturer supplies a driver to conform to the specific requirements of their component. This lets each hardware's strengths be exploited without every programmer having to worry about how to do this.
While drivers are important for many types of hardware, they are especially important for video cards. I cannot emphasize this enough: do not underestimate the importance of good drivers and proper driver support from the manufacturer when considering a video card. A "good" video card can outperform a "great" video card if the first company writes efficient drivers and the second does not. Even more than this, if you cannot get a driver that supports a given card on your operating system of choice, you may be forced to either use a generic (read: slow) driver, or not use the operating system at all. This can really negate any performance potential of a card with good hardware. Some cards have better written drivers for certain operating systems than they do for others.
Also realize that some companies are much better than others at sticking with their older products and continuing to provide support for them. If you bought a video card in early 1995 to use with Windows 3.x, did the manufacturer provide a driver for Windows 95 when it was released? Most did, but some did not. Some companies only produce "beta" drivers and never really finish optimizing them. Some produce drivers that are riddled with bugs but never fully resolve them. Buggy video drivers can cause a host of different, hard-to-diagnose system problems.
I don't usually like to name names but Diamond Multimedia has a horrible reputation in this regard. They make nice cards--I own one myself--but they are known for dropping support for a video card less than a year after it has been released. This can lead many of their customers to feel "abandoned", especially those that upgrade to new operating systems as soon as they are released. For others, it's not that big of a deal at all. Also, since many of the big companies (including Diamond) use third party chipsets from companies like S3, sometimes the chipset manufacturer makes available generic drivers that work with any card using that chipset, although they may not be tweaked for the best performance possible for your specific card.
One other aspect of importance regarding drivers is support for the different levels of VESA BIOS Extensions (VBE). The better, newer cards include VBE support natively in the hardware, which is preferred for compatibility and performance reasons. Many older cards include support but only if a third-party memory-resident VBE program is used.