Saturday, 24 August 2013

What is Firmware and Why Update Firmware?

Firmware is a combination of software and hardware. Computer chips that have data or programs recorded on them are firmware. These chips commonly include the following:

  • ROMs (read-only memory)
  • PROMs (programmable read-only memory)
  • EPROMs (erasable programmable read-only memory)
Firmware in PROM or EPROM is designed to be updated if necessary through a software update.

Firmware is held in non-volatile memory devices such as ROM, EPROM, or flash memory. Changing the firmware of a device may rarely or never be done during its economic lifetime; some firmware memory devices are permanently installed and cannot be changed after manufacture.

Why does firmware need to be updated?

Most of the gear we use today is as much a computer as it is an audio or video device. As such, sometimes the manufacturer makes improvements to those programs that run the device (firmware). These improvements are released as firmware updates. We can expect to see firmware updates for everything from our Blu-ray players and video game consoles to our car stereos.
Here are a couple of examples to illustrate the importance of firmware updates:
  • Xbox 360™ added a new user interface, Netflix streaming, Last.fm, and other new features via a big firmware update in 2009.
  • Some early models of Blu-ray players added new surround sound decoding functionality via firmware update, giving owners new ways to experience the audio details in their movies.
The same thing goes for software updates, and we're all probably more familiar with those. Our computers constantly check for updates for the programs we run: new versions of video players or iTunes®, for example.
To simplify the issue: whether an update is for a device's firmware or software, it doesn't really matter. They both work the same way. The point is that sometimes updates are released and we need to apply them to our gear

Root of Firmware
Ascher Opler coined the term "firmware" in a 1967 Datamation article. Originally, it meant the contents of a writable control store (a small specialized high speed memory), containing microcode that defined and implemented the computer's instruction set, and that could be reloaded to specialize or modify the instructions that the central processing unit (CPU) could execute. As originally used, firmware contrasted with hardware (the CPU itself) and software (normal instructions executing on a CPU). It was not composed of CPU machine instructions, but of lower-level microcode involved in the implementation of machine instructions. It existed on the boundary between hardware and software; thus the name "firmware".
Still later, popular usage extended the word "firmware" to denote anything ROM-resident, including processor machine-instructions for BIOS, bootstrap loaders, or specialized applications.
Until the mid-1990s, updating firmware typically involved replacing a storage medium containing firmware, usually a socketed ROM. Flash memory allows firmware to be updated without physically removing an integrated circuit from the system. An error during the upgrade process may make the device non-functional, or "bricked".

Kenwood's navigation receivers present a good example for how updates could come from multiple sources. These receivers use navigation software supplied by Garmin. Potential updates could take any of these forms:
  • Firmware updates for the functionality of the stereo come from Kenwood.
  • Garmin could release updates for navigation functionality, adding features or improving performance (firmware).
  • Garmin also releases occasional map updates to keep the directions as accurate as possible (software).

How do I apply the update?

Updating the gear like an MP3 player or camera is easy when you can connect it to your computer. If your television, Blu-ray player, or game console are connected to the Internet, then updating them can be this easy too. It'll depend on the specific equipment, of course.
For other gear, you will typically download the firmware update to your computer and then transfer it to your device via disc, thumb drive, or SD card. Simply load the update via disc drive or USB or SD card input, and it should take care of itself from there. Read the manufacturer's website for the specifics of your equipment.
A caution about applying updates
Before applying an update, especially in the case of firmware, you need to make sure that the update is for your exact model of device. Applying an update intended for a similar-but-different model could result in your gear becoming non-operational. The old firmware gets overwritten (replaced) by new operating instructions that aren't compatible with your model, which means your device won't work anymore. That's referred to as "bricking" your gear.
So always double check those model numbers before applying a firmware update.

How do I find out about updates?

There are three things you can do to stay abreast of firmware updates.
  • The best way to make sure you're alerted to important updates for your device is to register your purchase with the manufacturer. Fill out the registration card that comes with it or register it online at the manufacturer's website. That way, the manufacturer knows you own one of their devices and can alert you if a really important update comes along.
  • The other way to keep on top of updates is to occasionally visit the manufacturer's website and look up your equipment model or a list of released firmware updates. This might be the only way to learn about updates for minor issues.
  • If you really like your gear, join a message board or social media feed dedicated to that brand or device. Hanging out with other users is sure to keep you informed about any changes.
Back to my Kenwood example: upon going to Kenwood's website, I easily made my way to the support section and discovered messages about firmware updates for iPod® and Bluetooth® compatibility.


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