In computing and much of technology, the term firmware is certainly not new; however, not everyone knows the meaning of this word. In the next few lines we will look at what firmware is: its meaning, strengths, weaknesses, and how you can install it on your home and work devices. We will also give space to the tricks to be followed to avoid critical issues during the firmware update itself.
Firmware: what it is
The term Firmware is the union of two English words, namely firm and software, which in Italian can be translated into permanent logical component. Technically, it is a program, i.e., a well-defined sequence of instructions, that is embedded in a specific programmed electronic component, whether entrusted with UEFI technology or otherwise.
As is easy to deduce, every electronic device has firmware, from the most common smart TVs, to smartphones, hard drives, computers, printers or modems/routers.
The firmware is, therefore, responsible for managing the basic functions of the reference hardware, so that the latter can communicate with the software and initiate the main functions.
In most cases it is managed by a memory controller, which is a physical unit within the device that through a dedicated computer language allows the device to be controlled.
Firmware: how it works
Every manufacturer, when developing an electronic device directly installs the firmware chip in a dedicated area.
Until very few years ago, it was only possible to remove that element and replace it with a new one, making the upgrade technically a firmware replacement. Currently, however, firmware instructions can be updated directly on the existing firmware by replacing it via software.
The best known firmware is that found inside personal computer motherboards or dedicated graphics cards. The firmware in this case gives the main instructions to the operating system regarding RAM and processor frequencies, ensuring booting without incompatibility.
Firmware: BIOS and UEFI
Among the most popular firmware found within electronic devices is certainly that of personal computer motherboards. When people talk about firmware for their motherboard in many cases they mean BIOS or UEFI, but what is meant by these terms?
BIOS, which stands for Basic Input-Output System, is intended to test and initialize the hardware components found in any type of computer, allowing the operating system to boot.
In computer science, the BIOS is considered to be a package of software rules that is stored on a dedicated chip and physically installed on the motherboard, representing a real ROM where basic information is stored.
Thanks to these physical chips, it is possible to update and change the BIOS via EEPROM, with which new firmware can also be tested.
This type of firmware can also be viewed within the software from the motherboard by selecting the dedicated button and entering the actual BIOS of the main information of your electronic device.
The term UEFI, which stands for Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, refers to a more modern version of the BIOS. The most up-to-date motherboards have only the UEFI system, as it provides access to more features, especially in terms of changing RAM frequencies, processor and, of course, voltages. The UEFI interface can also be used with the mouse, while the BIOS can only be operated with the keyboard.
A motherboard with BIOS firmware is probably very old, on which it is almost impossible to install UEFI firmware.
Although one might think that BIOS, given the lower number of functions, is easier to use, in reality it is too constraining and in many cases less functional than more modern and hypothetically more complex BIOSes to manage.
Firmware: why to upgrade it
In analyzing the definition of firmware, it is evident that such software is indispensable for the operation of an electronic device. Improved optimization of computer language allows the communication between hardware and software components to be exploited.
But in addition to the purely practical aspect, there are several benefits to be gained from updating the firmware, let’s see what they are.
Implementations of new functions
Firmware can be especially useful for adding new features within one’s hardware or software compartment. Although many consumers are convinced that a hardware component is bound to factory directions, with the right firmware it is possible to derive better performance from it.
In many cases an automatic overclock is applied due to modifications made by specialized computer scientists. But stepping outside the scope of unofficial issues, even the manufacturers themselves make new firmware available to derive additional performance and functions from the electronic device they sell.
In many cases, it is recommended to update the firmware several years after the purchase of the product; this allows you to take full advantage of the new features implemented and already tested by other users.
One of the reasons why individuals and businesses are upgrading the firmware of their electronic devices lies in adding more modern solutions to deal with cyber threats. Large companies use firmware with better security protocols, protecting the product from potential cyber attacks.
Although in many cases one takes care of one’s devices with software-based security tools, such as antivirus or VPN, implementing effective firmware can minimize the attached issues.
Unfortunately, manufacturers do not always distribute firmware aimed at improving security, causing users to veer toward newer solutions and products that offer greater guarantees over time.
After about 2 years, even 5 for major companies, developers do not release substantial firmware updates.
Not everyone knows that the firmware is designed for a specific country, effectively binding it to a dedicated legal regulation. Although this condition is slightly less complicated to manage for motherboards, video cards, and home and office electronic devices, the matter becomes more complex for modems/routers.
In recent years, FWA/LTE technology, which is extremely useful for taking advantage of a phone SIM and making a network connection anywhere you want, using a phone provider’s bands, has been gaining popularity.
Buying a modem/router from a foreign country, such as Lithuania, although it may work in Italy is extremely limiting. This is due to different firmware and band aggregation on completely different frequencies.
I these cases it is possible to update the product with Italian firmware, a condition that would make the product usable. Updating the firmware in this case, however, would void the warranty since it would be an operation not authorized by the official manufacturer.
Hardware platform upgrade
When installing new firmware on a device, one of the most trivial reasons is to change the reference hardware platform.
As we anticipated, in the case of a motherboard, upgrading the firmware allows other more modern components to be implemented. A next-generation processor is unlikely to integrate on an obsolete motherboard, except if you upgrade its firmware to the same socket.
In this case, the potential of the new hardware will be exploited, even on a system potentially not suitable for the current generation. The financial savings are significant, especially for those who have invested a significant amount of money with a high-level platform.
In fact, it is the high-end devices that enable such benefits, whereas it is much more difficult to be able to install the latest firmware on a hardware component that is several years old.
Instability in the previous version
Installing new firmware within a device can also be very useful in eliminating instabilities present in the original version. Although a quality firmware is distributed after several tests, in some cases one may run into youthful errors and end up with unreliable software.
Updating the previous version with an official solution distributed by the manufacturing company will reduce, if not eliminate altogether, critical instability issues.
In this way, the device will offer the desired performance, ensuring a definitely better quality of daily use. In many cases, it is the product company that recommends whether or not to update the firmware; keeping informed about this on specialized sites can help alleviate doubts about the erratic operation of the device you purchased.
Firmware: why not upgrade it
A proper analysis of the meaning of firmware also goes through the criticality of it. Although updating it is almost always the ideal solution for better performance, there are instances when it is better not to do so.
Such an operation in recent years has become increasingly easy, but one must be well aware of where and how one is intervening so as not to incur damage to the system. But what are the consequences of a failed firmware update?
Locking the system
Updating the firmware incorrectly completely locks up one’s electronic device. Since it is a computer language that enables communication between hardware and software, the moment this interaction fails you turn your product into an unusable item.
The whole system comes to a standstill and input and output operations cannot be performed. It will then be necessary, to install the firmware from scratch, restoring communication between the parts.
Such an issue if it occurs on motherboards, video cards, smartphones, and more, could lead to complete device failure. Firmware that changes the voltage and electrical voltage can generate a short circuit and burn out some physical elements, resulting in a nonfunctional product.
In the event that new firmware is installed and the device has no lockups, it is not certain that the upgrade will succeed 100%. In many cases, instability problems can occur as the hardware fails to handle the new parameters set in the BIOS in the best possible way.
The solution lies in integrating stable firmware with which to lower, or at least control, average operating temperatures. Employing a malfunctioning product is detrimental not only to the daily user experience, but also to the device itself, which can become damaged more quickly.
Firmware: upgrade mode
Noting what are the potentials of a new firmware and especially the risks to be faced, it is appropriate to dwell on what are the ways to upgrade. Not all electronic devices on the market can be upgraded, and even more often many of them differ in how they are installed. Let’s look at the most common systems to interface with to update firmware.
Automatic mode is the easiest one to use; as the word suggests, it is nothing more than an automated firmware installation initiated by the device the moment a new version becomes available.
Both modems/routers, smartphones, smart TVs and all other devices have an automatic update function. However, one should not imagine that all electronic products will automatically initiate installation; in most cases a notification will be presented that allows the user to choose whether or not to proceed with the update.
Installing firmware for routers, smartphones, and smart TVs is recommended to derive better performance, while for motherboards, printers, and video cards, a different mode should be performed.
Customarily, devices with this type of update are those supported the most by manufacturers, but it should be kept in mind that distributions rarely exceed 5 years.
Accessing firmware in manual mode is definitely more advanced. This allows you to delete any previous BIOS data and insert a fully optimized one. The manual mode can be divided into two types of interaction: chip removal and installation via external pendrive.
In case you opt for a manual solution, in which you have to remove the chip from the motherboard or electronic device, it is essential to use appropriate tools or specialized professionals. This operation is particularly invasive to the system and in many cases is done when the hardware is almost completely compromised.
Installation via external pendrive , on the other hand, is a common manual operation, usually used to place the new firmware inside the motherboard. Although it is easy to start a firmware installation procedure with the pendrive, it is very important to take some conditions into consideration before starting the process. We will see which ones in the next few lines.
Wireless mode is the dedicated firmware installation for iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. The Apple ecosystem allows people to connect their devices to the wireless network and still proceed with updating new firmware.
This procedure is very similar to that adopted for automatic installation, therefore, you will need to download the latest firmware version and proceed to give consent for installation.
Downloading the new firmware is done from the device’s official platform, it is not recommended to initiate a download from third-party websites, the chances of malfunction would increase exponentially. It is advisable to judiciously follow the guides provided by Apple for updating the firmware of iOS devices.
When using a wired update mode, you directly connect the device to your personal computer. Customarily, such a remedial process allows the BIOSes of even locked smartphones to be restored, providing greater incisiveness through more software-based intervention.
Wired upgrading is mainly suitable for home devices, which are usually not upgradeable by automatic distribution. In this case, however, it is advisable to check on the manufacturer’s website whether the firmware downloaded and to be installed via the cable complies with Italian regulations.
As anticipated in the previous lines, in the event that the firmware is not present within the official distributor’s list, one may run into software that cannot function properly, or at least exposes the device to potential malfunctions after a few months.
Firmware: installation on devices
In addition to the meaning of firmware let’s go into more detail of how to install it on your device. Although the implementations are potentially endless, we will focus on those that are the most recurrent: PCs, monitors, printers, Android, iOS, routers, and smart TVs.
Let us start with the component most subject to firmware update, not only because it features multiple components within it, but also because of a need in many cases related to compatibility.
The ways of updating a firmware on one’s PC are different, depending on the reference component one can adopt a pendrive, automatic or manual mode.
The hard disk and network card are two items with which it is best to avoid installing new firmware. Dedicated memories in these devices could become misaligned and induce not only malfunction but also breakage.
The component that can be worked on without too much trouble is the motherboard; as anticipated, this has a dedicated physical chip. Excluding manual installation with desoldering, BIOS updating can also be done via USB or from the operating system itself.
Although you can install the new BIOS from the operating system you have already started, it is critical not to do so so as not to induce motherboard breakage. Installation via USB and external pendrive is best suited for this task.
More modern motherboards have a rear USB port called FlashUSB, this allows you to insert a pendrive with the BIOS.rom file and automatically proceed with the installation.
Instead, in most cases, you need to plug the pendrive into a USB port on the motherboard, proceed to boot the PC and click Del, F2, F18, F10 or F12 depending on the manufacturer, and then access the motherboard BIOS. From here you can view the Flash BIOS section and proceed to install the new firmware.
Motherboards with UEFI firmware allow a guided installation, while those with BIOS are definitely more cumbersome and you have to follow a third-party guide depending on the computer used.
Not everyone is aware that firmware upgrading can also be done on a PC monitor. This implementation is mainly due to the firmware’s ability to improve certain display features, usually for a more stable frame rate or technology aimed at the gaming industry.
The procedure for updating is well defined and applies, except in rare cases, in the same way to every monitor. Let’s look in detail at the process to be performed to achieve the desired result with the new drivers.
First you need to connect the USB cable from your PC to your monitor and disconnect all other video cables, so you can start the upgrade process. You also need to disconnect all other monitors to your desktop or notebook PC in case you own more than one. Make sure that only the monitor to be upgraded is connected to it, avoiding possible damage to others.
Small tip, before starting the installation, is to disable the power-saving mode if it was on, this will allow a smooth and fast procedure.
Starting the monitor from your PC will allow you to begin the firmware installation procedure, either from the operating system itself or from the monitor settings via pendrive and USB in case it has them.
Once the installation phase is complete, you will need to unplug the power cord for about 5 seconds and plug it back in. At this point, the update has occurred as planned; this can be verified by viewing the monitor information in the settings.
Another device that may need a firmware update is the printer, a tool that in many cases may malfunction after a power failure or malware attack.
In most cases, printers, especially those with a well-known brand name, have dedicated software for implementing the new firmware. In order to achieve a smooth upgrade process, it is advisable to download the manufacturer’s tool and proceed to install the new drivers through the specific section.
Not all printer software tools are identical to each other, but by checking the options in the settings it is not difficult to find the automatic update section.
In case there are no dedicated tools or an area aimed at automatic updating, then one should look at the printer manufacturer’s official website and search for available drivers. If there were more updated drivers in the dedicated section, it would be possible to download them and proceed with the installation, without fear of creating additional issues. Officially distributed firmware for printers in very rare cases can result in malfunctions.
When you intend to install firmware for your Android smartphone or tablet, you are most likely experiencing significant problems. As much as you might think that changing the BIOS of your smartphone is a smart idea to breathe new life into it, in reality it is often counterproductive.
It is recommended that you update the firmware of your device only if it is completely locked, or not essential for daily operations. Official firmware updates offered by the smartphone manufacturer are of course excluded in this review.
To begin the process of installing the new firmware, it should be downloaded. There are several platforms on the web that provide firmware other than the original ones to enable safe installation, but it is recommended to choose a website that has a https:// protocol to be sure that the downloaded files are not malicious.
Having found the most suitable firmware for your smartphone model, you can proceed to download the compressed package. When the download is complete you will have to unzip it and turn off your device. To start the installation procedure you have to press the volume and power keys at the same time, also the Home key in case it is present.
The smartphone will turn back on and a window will appear showing the files you just downloaded. You will have to select the installation file and wait for the procedure to finish; it can take up to several minutes. The procedure will happen automatically, and the Android device will reboot itself to display the operating system on the screen.
As is easy to imagine, products distributed by Apple are particularly constrained to factory firmware. Apple’s device optimization is excellent, and in very few cases will you feel the need to update the BIOS. In other cases, however, it will be the company itself that will distribute the updated firmware, providing the consumer with additional performance and functions.
Updates almost always occur automatically, handled by the operating system or dedicated software preinstalled by Apple. When downloading new firmware, however, errors may occur, a condition that forces users to download the same file in.ipsw format.
Once you have downloaded the file in this format you can proceed either wirelessly or by connecting your device to your computer. Both solutions are very good, but the wired one allows for higher data exchange speed.
Upgrading an iOS system is certainly simpler and less problematic than an Android one; in fact, Apple allows you to take your device in for service and restore its possible lock. We recommend avoiding third-party solutions and using the software provided by Apple for manual updates. We also recommend taking a look at the official support page to minutely follow the update guide.
In case you own an iPhone from a few years ago, it would be advisable to avoid starting the update procedure. Dated devices, although they can start and complete the upgrade procedure, have several malfunctions compared to the original firmware.
The management of one’s router, whether it is used for fast wired or wireless connections, requires multiple upgrades over the years. Unfortunately, modems/routers become obsolete with great ease; this is due not only to the distribution of newer, higher-performance devices, but also to the change of radio frequencies that are periodically given to operators.
Those who upgrade their router firmware benefit from three main features: bug fixes, addition of new features, and enhanced cyber protection. Unfortunately, routers are subject to constant interference, as well as a flow of electricity that is often subjected to power surges.
In order for concrete results to be achieved, two resolutions can be opted for: automatic and manual updating. In the former case, the update is recommended by the software itself, which will proceed to install the new drivers after confirmation by the user.
Within the router/modem it can be accessed via theIP address written below or behind it, such as http://192.456.0.1. In the settings you will be able to access the update section, automatically downloading the latest available version.
Routers are not always able to download firmware, in which case you can opt for a manual solution or contact the support of the company that manufactured the device directly. In the latter case, the company will indicate the procedure for requesting the updated download file.
Installation is very simple, just connect a pendrive, or an Ethernet cable, to your computer and router and then proceed to install the new firmware.
Strange as it may seem, even smart TVs can be upgraded, not only in the operating system, but also in the code that runs hardware and software. It should be pointed out that obsolete smart TV models are unlikely to feature such updates, as well as not having fast enough USB inputs for installation.
There are two ways to update a smart TV: via Internet connection and via USB stick.
Smart TV manufacturers recommend using the first mode, as it allows you to check whether updates are available directly from the settings. To start the procedure, the TV should be connected to the home network, either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Once the connection has been verified, one must go to the settings and select the General item. From here select the About TV option and immediately afterwards on Check for updates. After a few seconds, the smart TV will check for newer firmware or not, installing it if there is any.
The procedure via USB stick requires downloading the original file from the manufacturer’s site and saving it to the pendrive. This will need to be connected to a USB port on the TV, preferably one with a USB 1.2 or higher technology, and from which the installation can be started.
Some smart TVs require installation directly from the Manual Driver Update section, it is recommended to check for them first.
Firmware: tricks to consider
Installing new firmware may seem straightforward, but several issues can be encountered, especially a few days after the operation is completed. It is necessary, therefore, to take into consideration some expedients, let’s see the main ones.
The first assessment to be made is the version of one’s electronic device. A router, smart TV, or any other product has a certain code for hardware and software management.
In order for the correct firmware to be downloaded, the one most suitable for the version already installed should be selected. Updating a firmware with a more outdated code is definitely not smart.
Electric current voltage
Before starting the firmware update, it is essential to plug the device into a reliable electrical outlet. Many installations fail or produce malfunctions due to incorrect power supply.
Avoiding power surges allows the installation to be completed in the best way possible, while also protecting the integrity of the product.
Not all USB pendrives are compatible for firmware installation. The choice of one pendrive over the other depends mainly on the file system of the device that will need to be updated.
To avoid making a mistake, it is recommended that you consult your product’s manual so that you can quickly figure out whether the format is FAT32, NTFS, or other. It is recommended to delete all documents from the pendrive and insert only the file to be installed, so as to have get a faster loading.
One of the steps to take before upgrading the firmware is to perform a security backup. Keeping the previous firmware, the real potential of which you already know, is very useful for restoring it in case you encounter problems with the new one.
Some devices, for example, routers, smart TVs, and printers, allow restoration of the previous firmware through backup.
In many cases, a firmware update is performed thinking that this is sufficient to improve the compatibility of new peripherals. Although in some cases this is true, it is imperative to first verify that the new software is really useful for this purpose.
In case an incompatibility with peripheral devices is analyzed, it is advisable not to upgrade, avoiding significant damage to the hardware.
We have pointed out that the ways of installation are different, this also determines one’s degree of competence in this regard.
Automatic updates are suitable for users who are unfamiliar with such operations, while manual installation is suitable for those who are familiar with where to take action. The pendrive is the middle solution that can be used by everyone, but one must take into consideration the issues highlighted in the previous lines.
The significance of firmware goes beyond its dictionary definition-no matter how unimportant you may think this software is, it can actually make a difference in the proper functioning of an electronic device. In the everyday sphere, especially for home products such as smart TVs, tablets, and printers, the need to update firmware is definitely not that relevant. More interesting discussion, however, for the PC and Router sphere, where considerably better performance can be derived.