Tech Speak: What Is Firmware?

Tech Speak: Firmware

OK, you know about hardware: that’s the gadget you’re holding, like your laptop, router, or smartphone. You know about software: those are the programs that run on your hardware that tell it to do things, like Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word. But I bet you might not know much about firmware— and therein lies today’s lesson.

Firmware is like a hidden layer of software that comes pre-installed on some of your devices. It’s like the heart and brain of your device— giving it basic instructions on how to do it’s thing. It’s the code that tells a camera how to be a camera, or a smartphone how to be a smartphone. For some devices, that’s the extent of it’s programming, for others like your smartphone, it’s the first layer: the system software sits on top of it, telling it how to run apps, and the apps sit on top of that telling it how to send your rainbow puke photos on Snapchat (my username is CarleyKnobloch BTW!). Because it’s so important, it’s programmed onto a separate part of your device’s memory, so the chances of it getting messed up in a tragic fried hard drive accident are less likely.

Why care about firmware?

In some devices, firmware remains unchanged for the life of the hardware, but increasingly, the devices you own need firmware updates for a multitude of reasons. Some examples: 

Fixing bugs: If your digital camera isn’t working properly, or is crashing frequently, a firmware update is the manufacturer’s opportunity to take another stab at fixing it.

Closing Security gaps: A Wifi router is a gateway to your home’s devices, and if it has holes in it’s security that can be fixed by a firmware update… you want that update.

Making devices forward-compatible: An external hard drive you bought two years ago might not know how to interact with your computer’s new operating system. A firmware update can fix that right up. It might also speed things up, because the device isn’t fighting to work with the newer stuff around it.

Prolonging your investment: I can ensure that my smart thermostat keeps up with newer models by ensuring that its firmware stays updated.

What first?

Three biggies to think about are your computers (including tablets and smartphones), your router and your modem. I’m willing to bet that you rely on all of those for great speed, tight security, and no glitches—three things that a firmware update may improve. If you have any other device you feel isn’t running like it should, like a camera, fitness tracker, or smart home product, head to it’s website to see if a firmware update is available.

OK, how do I do this?

On Macs, run “Software Update” (under the Apple menu) to check. On PCs, do a search for “update” and click “Windows Update.” For other devices, go to the manufacturer’s website, armed with your device’s model number. If the site asks for the firmware version you’re currently running, you may be able to find that listed on the device itself or on its associated app if there is one. If you registered your device with the manufacturer when you bought it, then you should theoretically be receiving notices about firmware updates, but it’s always good to check for updates on the site.

One extremely important tip: Whenever running an update, make sure your device is plugged in, your internet connection stays solid (not a good time to watch Transparent), and that no one disrupts it— interrupting a firmware update is kind of like giving your device a lobotomy, and could do some serious damage.

Make sense? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments!

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