Come On Board

Adding Hardware In WinNT Isn't Easy, But Definitely Possible

First Published: Smart Computing Reference Series
Date Published: April 2003
By Kevin Savetz

Upgrading the hardware on a PC that's running Windows NT can be a bit of a challenge. If you've been spoiled by today's flexible "plug it in, reboot, and go" OSes (operating systems), adding hardware in WinNT might cause a bit of culture shock.

Not to worry, though. If you choose your hardware devices carefully and are willing to spend a bit of time configuring them, you can certainly upgrade the hardware on a WinNT computer. Serial and parallel port devices, PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) cards, IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) devices, and SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) adapters and drives, PC Cards, and PS/2 keyboards and mice will generally work well. The aging WinNT doesn't support USB (Universal Serial Bus) or FireWire, however, nor does it support automatic hardware detection.

PnP (Plug and Play)--a feature in which an OS can automatically configure newly installed hardware--isn't available in WinNT. So, you'll need to be armed with device drivers (small programs that let hardware communicate with the computer) and information before you install that new hardware. At a minimum, know the manufacturer and model of the hardware you want to add. Even better, keep the new peripheral's manual close. In addition, have the hardware's WinNT drivers (either on a floppy diskette/disc or downloaded from the manufacturer's Web site) ready before you install it. Also keep your WinNT installation disc nearby, as you may need it during configuration.

You should also make certain that the new peripheral is compatible with WinNT 4.0. Check the device's documentation or the manufacturer's Web site to find out. If the manufacturer supplies a WinNT driver, you're in great shape. If not, WinNT's built-in drivers may do the job.

Unlike later versions of Windows, WinNT doesn't have an Add/Remove Hardware option in the Control Panel. Instead, a hodgepodge of other control panels and administrator tools handle hardware configuration. In this article, we'll walk you through a couple of hardware installations to give you an idea of how it's done in WinNT. You'll need to be logged in as Administrator when configuring hardware.

USB & FireWire Support. As noted previously, WinNT doesn't officially support USB, but there are ways around this limitation. The first choice is to use hardware in which the manufacturer has created USB drivers explicitly for WinNT. A handful of these exist, including 100MB and 250MB Iomega Zip drives (; this doesn't include the new 750MB drives), the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart S20 and S20xi film scanners (, and the DiskOnKey USB storage device ( You can find a detailed list of such devices at USB News (

However, these USB devices may not play nice together under WinNT. For example, Iomega cautions that USB Zip drives won't work alongside USB devices from other manufacturers. WinNT won't tolerate a hub littered with USB devices; in fact, it may not tolerate more than one USB peripheral.

Another option is to use third-party software that adds USB drivers to the OS. This may let you use hardware that isn't specifically designed for WinNT. A program from bsquare with the accurate but unimaginative name of USB For Windows NT 4.0 ($39.95; adds support for USB keyboards, mice, printers, and hubs. It also supports docking cradles for several Pocket PC devices, including the Casio E115, HP iPAQ/Jornada 545/548, and Socket's USB Sync Card. The program doesn't add support for other USB devices, such as modems, scanners, and cameras.

(If you do switch to a USB keyboard or mouse, keep your old devices around just in case. Should the WinNT drivers ever fail to load, you'll be stuck without the ability to use the USB input devices.)

Your PC's BIOS (Basic Input/Output System; software built into most computers that controls the startup process of the machine and other basic functions) may support USB keyboards and mice under WinNT, without the addition of extra software. That is, the BIOS may have a feature that takes keyboard and mouse input from the USB port and makes the OS believe it's coming from the PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports. Check the PC's manual or BIOS setup utility for this option.

WinNT doesn't support FireWire (also known as IEEE 1394), the speedy specification (up to 400Mbps [megabits per second]) for a high-speed bus that's used to connect digital video cameras, CD burners, and other peripherals to a system. There aren't any workarounds for FireWire like there are for USB hardware.

You can use a FireWire hard drive by connecting it to another server that's running a more modern OS on the LAN (local-area network) and then accessing that server through WinNT's Network Neighborhood tool. This should work with FireWire hard drives, but you won't be able to use WinNT to operate FireWire devices, such as scanners, CD burners, and video cameras.

Add Storage. WinNT is accommodating about adding hard drives and optical storage, supporting IDE and SCSI controllers. Most PCs include IDE controllers; IDE drives are flexible and inexpensive, allowing as many as four devices per controller card. SCSI is less common but remains popular in servers for its speed and ability to add more drives. Make sure the drive you choose is compatible with your PC's drive controller.

The SCSI Adapters control panel in WinNT displays information about the drive controller cards installed on the PC. Despite the name, it shows information about both IDE and SCSI controllers.

When you're ready to install your drive, physically install it and hook it to the controller. When you boot the computer, WinNT won't see the drive unless it's already been partitioned and formatted on another computer. If the drive is already prepared for use with WinNT (or if it's an optical drive), it will display in Windows Explorer and is ready to use. If not, you need to partition and format the drive. To do so, open the Disk Administrator tool (click Start, point to Programs, Administrative Tools [Common], and Disk Administrator). Every drive in the system is shown in the Disk Configuration view. The unpartitioned drive will be marked with slashes. Now, you need to partition the drive. Partitions are divisions to a disk drive that let it the OS see the drive as more than one drive. Each partition has its own drive letter (such as E:), and each can have a different file system.

Click the bar graph that indicates the new drive. Be absolutely sure you choose the new drive; if you select the wrong drive when repartitioning or formatting, you will erase it. Choose Create from the Partition menu. You'll see the minimum and maximum allowable partition sizes.

You'll probably want a single partition at its maximum size. Make sure the "maximum" number is in the Partition Size field and press OK. If you decide to create two or more partitions, each will appear as a different drive (for example, D: and E:). Make sure the total size of the partitions equals the entire space available on the drive. Otherwise, you'll end up with wasted space.

The diagonal lines will disappear from the drive's bar graph, replaced by the word Unformatted. Select the drive again, and choose Commit Changes Now from the Partition menu. The drive's bar graph will now read Unknown.

Now that the drive is partitioned, it's time to format it. Select the drive's bar graph again and choose Format from the Tools menu. In the window that appears, give the drive a name in the Volume Label field and choose the file system for that partition.

WinNT offers a choice of file systems: NTFS (NT file system) or FAT (file allocation table). The file system defines the OS' rules for how files are stored on the drive. NTFS is the more powerful file system, allowing better security, longer file names, and partitions greater than 4GB. Therefore, NTFS is usually the better choice unless you'll need to access that drive from OSes that don't support it, such as MS-DOS and Windows 95. If you do need to use FAT to access that drive from MS-DOS, limit the partition size to 2GB, the largest partition DOS can handle.

When you're ready to format the drive, click Start. Be patient, as formatting can take some time. The bigger the drive, the longer it will take. By default, the new partition will be assigned the lowest available drive letter. You can assign a different letter to a partition by highlighting the partition and choosing Assign Drive Letter from the Tools menu. Now choose Exit from the Partition menu. The new drive will now be available to Windows. Open Windows Explorer and you'll see the new drive letters in the drive list.

Add A Printer. Adding a printer under WinNT is straightforward process. First connect the printer. WinNT can use a printer that's connected to the PC's parallel or serial port, as well as printers connected to other servers on the LAN.

Open Control Panel and then double-click the Printers control panel. Double-click the Add Printer icon. The Add Printer Wizard will ask how the printer is connected. If the printer is connected to your PC's parallel or serial port, select My Computer and press Next. On the next screen, choose the port that the printer is connected to. Because parallel printers are the norm, the LPT1 is the right choice in the vast majority of configurations. Now click Next.

You now need to choose the printer's manufacturer and model. Or, if you have the driver diskette/disc that came with the printer, insert it and press the Have Disk button to point to the driver. In the next window you can give the printer a name, then choose whether the printer is to be shared with other systems on the LAN. Finally, you can print a test page. Your printer should now be ready to go.

If, on the other hand, the printer is connected to another server on the LAN, choose Network Printer Server on the first page of the Add Printer Wizard. Next, you'll see a list of computers and printers on the LAN. Find the printer you want to use and press OK. Finally, the wizard will ask if this should be your default printer. Make your selection and press OK. The wizard won't offer to print a test page, so it's a good idea to open a word processor and do a trial run.

Add A Video Card. If you want to replace your PC's video card with another, it's a good idea to first remove the driver for the old video card. Open the Display control panel and click the Settings tab. Now press the Display Type button. The Display Type window will show information about the old video card. Click the Change button and set the driver to Standard Display Types/VGA Compatible Display Adapter. Press OK, then shut down the PC. Remove the old video card and install the new one.

When the system boots, it should find the new video card and let you log into WinNT, although you'll be looking at a low-resolution 640 x 480 display. Now go back to the Display control panel, and on the Settings tab, click the Display Type button. Press the Change button and choose the manufacturer and model for the new video card. You can also click the Have Disk button and point to the video driver on CD or floppy diskette. You may have to reboot after the new driver is installed.

Finally, back at the Settings tab, choose the video resolution, color palette, and refresh rate. It's important to use a combination of resolution and refresh rate that's compatible with your video card and monitor; otherwise, it's possible to damage the hardware. Click the List All Modes button for a list of the combinations that your video card can handle.

Two Video Cards? It is possible (although not necessarily easy) to have two monitors working under WinNT. The OS doesn't officially support more than one, but a handful of video cards include drivers that work around the limitation.

You'll either need two identical models of video cards or a dual-head card (a video card that supports two monitors). Make sure that the cards you select include drivers for (and explicitly support dual monitors under) WinNT. Cards from Matrox (, NVIDIA (, and other manufacturers do so. Follow the video card's installation instructions to enable dual monitor support.

Try A Little Harder. WinNT remains a viable OS for countless computer users around the world. You don't need to move away from it just because you want to upgrade aging hardware. With a bit of care selecting new hardware, you can upgrade your PC in a way that will satisfy both WinNT and you.

How To Identify Your System's Hardware

Windows NT includes a program that will tell you all about the hardware running under it. The Windows NT Diagnostics tool tells you about the PC's drives, BIOS (Basic Input/ Output System), display, memory, and other hardware. To access it, click Start and point to Programs, Administrative Tools (Common), and Windows NT Diagnostics.

Under the Version tab, you'll find details about WinNT itself, including registration information and what service pack is installed. The System tab shows details about the PC's processor and BIOS. The Display tab provides information about the PC's video card, and the Drives tab serves up details about its floppy drive, hard drive, and optical drives. Double-click any drive to find out its size, amount of free space, and which file system it uses.

The Memory tab shows numerous technical details related to WinNT's memory usage. Much of this information you won't need to know, but pay attention to the Total field in the Physical Memory pane, which will show the amount of RAM that's installed in the PC.

The Resources tab shows what devices and drivers are assigned to which IRQs (interrupt requests), I/O (input/output) ports, and other PC resources. This information can come in handy should new hardware conflict with older hardware.

Hot Tip: Tools That Can Help Get Your WinNT Hardware Up & Running

Windows NT lacks a centralized tool for configuring hardware. The tools are there, but they're spread around. Here's a short list of where to look to set up your PC's hardware:

Disk Administrator--Partition, format, and assign drive letters to hard drives.

Display control panel--Configure the video card, video driver, and monitor resolution.

Keyboard control panel--Set the type of keyboard. Configure keyboard language and key repeat rate.

Modems--Add a serial modem. Configure speed and type of existing modems. Set dialing rules for long distance and local calls.

Mouse control panel--Set the type of mouse. Configure mouse speed and button behavior.

Multimedia control panel--Configure the sound card, CD audio output, and joystick.

Network--Configure the Ethernet adapter, TCP/IP, and other protocols.

PC Card control panel--Configure PC Cards and slots.

Ports control panel--Configure the serial ports, including baud rate, flow control, and IRQs (interrupt request lines).

Printers--Add local and networked printers, configure sharing and security of printers.

SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) adapters--View information about SCSI and IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) controllers and the drives connected to them. Configure drivers for SCSI and IDE controllers.

System control panel--Set virtual memory size. Create hardware profiles (hardware configurations that you can choose at boot time, which can be useful for notebook users).

Tape Devices control panel--Configure streaming tape drives used for backups.

UPS control panel--If there's an UPS (uninterruptible power supply) connected to the serial port, this control panel lets the PC safely shut down when the power goes out.

Windows NT Diagnostics--View information about the PC's BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), CPU, memory, drives, display, and hardware resources.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.

Articles by Kevin Savetz