Simple Questions: What Is Firmware & What Does It Do?

Firmware… you've probably heard about it at some point. It sounds like a weird German name, doesn't it? What is firmware? What does it do? Surely, it's purpose is not just to confuse you. Well, it isn't and firmware is quite important when it comes to hardware devices of all kinds. To clear things out and make you feel more knowledgeable, in this article we will explain all the important stuff you need to know about it. Let's get started:

What Is Firmware?

Simply said, firmware is software that makes hardware work. Firmware consists of programs written by software developers to make hardware devices "tick". Without firmware, most of the electronic devices we use daily wouldn't be able to work. Firmware is the software responsible for allowing our hardware devices to communicate with each other and do what they are supposed to do.

For example, did you know that a simple traffic light has firmware on it? Yes it does and the firmware is what tells it to change the lights at regular intervals. Without firmware, the traffic light would be just a "stupid" mast, placed on the side of the road, doing nothing except looking pretty.

To make things even clearer, let's take another example: a computer motherboard without firmware wouldn't know how to detect the hard drives or the Blu-Ray drive that's found inside your computer. If your drives didn't have firmware embedded in them, they wouldn't know how fast to spin or when to stop. A wireless network card wouldn't know how to use a certain radio frequency and a smartphone wouldn't know how to power on. And so, and so on.


Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HP-HP9000-380-Firmware.jpg

We often tend to think about a hardware device as a device that is just hardware. And we assume that it just works by itself. However, almost none of the modern hardware devices would work without this special software that's written directly onto them.

Say after me: Firmware!!! Now it sounds like something magical, doesn't it?

Where Is The Firmware Stored?

We now know that firmware is software written directly into our hardware devices. But how exactly is it stored on a device? Firmware is usually stored in special types of memory, called flash ROM. ROM is the acronym for Read Only Memory and, obviously, this type of memory should only be written once, usually by the manufacturer of the hardware that we are using. A ROM memory is needed for any kind of electronic device, because it must hold data permanently, even when the device is turned off. You can't produce a hardware device that forgets its firmware, as it would cease to function once you pull out its power source.

But then again, flash ROM memory is a special ROM memory because, while it is initially written by the hardware manufacturer, it can be rewritten afterwards. Of course, you can write new firmware onto a hardware device. However, you can do it only with a proper firmware updating tool, that is specially designed to work for that hardware device.

What Kinds Of Firmware Are There?

There is as much variety in firmware as there is in hardware devices. There's firmware in computer motherboards (it's called BIOS or UEFI), there's firmware in hard drives, solid state drives (SSDs), CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drives, there's firmware in network cards, routers, access points, range extenders, there's even firmware in your gaming mouse and keyboard. These are just some examples that are related to computers.

You should remember that that firmware exists in most of the devices that do something useful, like your TV, washing machine or even in your car. You name the device… it probably wouldn't work without its firmware.

Can Firmware Be Upgraded?

Most manufacturers release regular updates for the firmware found on their hardware devices. They will also provide the necessary software tools to write the new firmware onto those devices. However, each manufacturer can choose whether it releases a new firmware for a certain device, or not. For instance, most computer parts manufacturers develop and provide customers with new firmware and the corresponding firmware updaters, at least for a few years after the device was launched.

Canon firmware update

To give you an example, the manufacturer of your motherboard can release new firmware updates when it wants to include new features, support new types of CPUs or RAM memory, or when it wants to solve specific problems with your hardware.

Any manufacturer can choose to deliver new firmware for its devices: a router can receive a firmware update that enhances its stability, a DVD writer can learn how to burn new types of discs and so on.

As far as where from to get new firmware, that depends on your hardware device manufacturer. Usually, you can find new firmware (if available) on your your device's support website. Look for a download page, download your new firmware and be careful to follow the upgrade documentation offered by the device manufacturer.

Writing new firmware on your device is a treacherous job and, if done incorrectly, can render your device useless. Forever! Like a brick! That's why some people tell you that you bricked your device: you just ruined its firmware and it can no longer function as it was intended to.

Conclusion

And now you know what firmware is, what it does and where it's found. Was our explanation good enough? Do you understand this concept? Do you have any questions or you just want to wish us well? Don't hesitate to use the comments form below and let us know.