abstract printed circuit board by gabover, Pixabay

What is Firmware and Why Should Firmware Be Updated?

Many of us go about our day using various electronic hardware devices such as a mobile phone to aid in getting a specific task achieved or just simply for entertainment purposes without the thought of how they function, let alone know that the device contains firmware. Being curious and wanting to push the limits of my devices I have ventured into discovering firmware to the point of going as far as to replacing the manufacture’s firmware with third party firmware. As an example, I’ve updated or replaced firmware on network routers, music players (e.g. iPod Classic), Nintendo Wii, and even on mobile phones. Join me in the journey of learning about firmware by starting from the beginning.

What is Firmware?

A group of computer software that is embedded in memory on the device that provides low-level control of the hardware device. Shortly described as, software for the hardware. Most devices would not be able to function as the user desires without the use of firmware. The frequency of firmware updates varies between each manufacture and circumstances at the time.

Some common devices known to have firmware are:

  • Gaming consoles
  • Mobile telephones
  • Motherboards
  • Network routers
  • Peripherals (e.g. mice, keyboards)
  • Printers
  • Streaming devices
  • Television remotes
  • Televisions

Why Update Firmware?

The most common reasons to update a device’s firmware are by adding features or fixing bugs. To be even more specific, a security vulnerability may have been discovered in the firmware and thus requires an update in order to continue to safely use the device. By updating firmware this will provide the opportunity to receive new features, efficiency improvements, security vulnerability patches, etc. Though firmware is a special type of software, the firmware update is no different from software application or app updates, they add or rewrite the existing software. Under most circumstances firmware updates are a necessary and even recommended doing regularly by some company manufactures.

In a more advanced case, one can use the firmware update system to install unofficial firmware that is created by a third party to extend the original intended use, unlock hidden features or to even prolong the use of a given device. Sometimes third party firmware is referred to as custom, aftermarket or hacking firmware. The majority of this type of firmware is provided for free or even provided as open source allowing anyone to review and modify the firmware code. Though, be aware that applying third party firmware can void manufacture warranty and also has similar risks.

It should be noted though that not all hardware devices allow for the firmware to be updated. This entirely depends on the design and what type of memory storage is used.

Dangers of Updating Firmware

Generally updating firmware if done properly according to the instructions provided by the company manufacture is completely safe. Though this is not done without risks involved. Here are some general cautions and rules to following when applying a firmware update.

  • Read the official device instruction manual about firmware updates
  • Read the official firmware update documentation
  • Backup the device before a firmware update
  • Download the firmware locally if possible
  • Download the firmware version already installed if possible (in case something goes wrong)
  • Do not update firmware using the Internet when possible
  • Do not use Wi-Fi (wireless) connection to update firmware when possible
  • Do not operate the device in any form during the firmware update
  • Do not power off the device during the firmware update
  • Use dedicated power when possible
  • Use a fully charged battery if you cannot use dedicated power
  • Malfunction of the device may occur, if the loss of power during update
  • Malfunction of the device may occur, if the wrong firmware is applied
  • Malfunction of the device may occur, if firmware is corrupted or incomplete

All this does sound concerning and may make one feel like it’s too risky. Yet, there can be far greater risks by not updating the firmware due say for example a bug that makes the device vulnerable to remote attacks to gain control. This all depends on the circumstances and ultimately one’s own decision whether to update a device’s firmware or not.

How To Update Firmware

This is a tough one to explain, because depending on the hardware device determines how the firmware can be updated if even permitted to do so by the design and memory storage type used. For the purpose of better understanding firmware, I can give a simplified example of how this may be done by updating a digital camera’s firmware that has been provided by the manufacture company.

Warning

Always follow the instructions provided by the device's company manufacture when applying a firmware update.

  1. Confirm firmware version already installed.
  2. Download the firmware update.
  3. Remove the memory card from the camera.
  4. Insert the memory card into the computer memory slot.
  5. Copy the firmware file onto the memory card.
  6. Insert the memory card into the camera memory slot.
  7. Power on the camera.
  8. Go to camera settings.
  9. Select the firmware file on memory card to install.
  10. When firmware update has completed, verify firmware version.

I’m publishing this as part of 100 Days To Offload. You can join in yourself by visiting 100DaysToOffload.com.