These days, most of your electronics have miniature computers built-in: Home theatre gear, hand held devices, phones, and even appliances now have embedded smarts in the form of a microprocessor, memory, and software. And just like computer software, firmware, the software that runs on your gadgets, needs periodic updating.
Believe it or not, many new gadgets aren't 100 percent complete when you buy them. Though a spiffy electronic toy may perform its basic functions, some of its promised features may be absent or incomplete. And to keep up with ever changing kinds of content, your devices may require software enhancements to give old hardware new features.
To avoid antagonising customers who might spend hundreds of dollars on a cool piece of hardware only to find a few months later that it no longer worked, manufacturers design much of their gear to allow updates. You won't be able to get every feature of the latest and greatest product via downloadable updates, but firmware revisions can make your old equipment run faster and crash less often.
What is firmware?
Firmware is software stored in persistent memory, usually either flash memory or programmable, rewritable ROM (read-only memory), that's built into the device. Unlike apps loaded into your PC's RAM, firmware doesn't get erased when you power the system down. Firmware may store just the basic software needed to start up the system, like a PC's BIOS, or it may store the entire operating system and applications suites, as with smartphones.
Why should I update?
Users often wonder why they should update their firmware. The real answer is "it depends." Many PC manufacturers and motherboard makers recommend that users not upgrade a system's BIOS, for example, unless an actual problem arises, such as memory compatibility issues, or unless the user is installing a new, unsupported CPU.
On the other hand, a Blu-ray player needs to be updated frequently, because new features on the content discs may render them unplayable on old firmware. So before you rush out to update your coffeemaker's firmware, check the manufacturer's recommendation first; otherwise, you might risk bricking your device (turning it into a useless assemblage of silicon and plastic) for nothing.
Of course, if you're running third party firmware (as in the case of a "jailbroken" iPhone), all bets are off. In this article we don't consider updates that break the manufacturer's warranty, so if you're installing custom, user-created firmware, you're well beyond the scope of this story.
Let's start with PCs and laptops, and then move on to other computing gear, handheld devices (including smartphones), and other consumer electronics.
General rules of thumb for updating firmware
A few general rules for updating firmware apply to all devices. They're simple, but critical:
- Confirm that you have reliable power. For standard PCs and other electronics that you plug into a wall, power isn't a big issue. If you're paranoid, you can connect a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to your device before proceeding.
- Make sure that the hardware is plugged in. Never rely on battery power when updating your laptop's BIOS or your phone's firmware.
- Create a backup of your current firmware. Not all devices allow you to do this, but if you can, you should. If the new firmware introduces a bug, you may need to revert to an older version.
- Log your changes. Some firmware updates will reset your device's settings to their default values, so document any adjustments you may have made before updating. That way, you can restore them properly. If the device allows it, save off settings to a file (this is common in routers, for example).
- Warn other users before updating your router. If you're updating a network device, be sure to let all users know in advance that the network may go down briefly.
Okay, now let's move on to the updating process itself.
PCs and laptops
Today's PC firmware falls into two categories: the traditional BIOS (Basic Input-Output System), and a newer kind called EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface). EFI is much more capable than the old BIOS routines, which are still mired in the 16-bit world. On the Windows PC side, most systems still use BIOS, while servers generally use EFI. Apple MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac Pros use EFI as well. Earlier Intel-based Macs use a firmware architecture built around the SMC (system management controller); but in recent Macs, EFI has superseded that arrangement.
Current PCs typically permit updating through the BIOS setup screen. Copy the BIOS update file to a USB flash memory stick, and then plug the USB stick into the system that you want to update. When you start up the system, press a key that launches the BIOS update application. Alternatively, press a keyboard key (usually Delete, but in some instances another key such as F2 or F10) to enter the BIOS setup program.
At this point, you'll need to navigate to the device that contains the firmware update. To do this (typically), select the file name and press Enter to launch the update process.
Updating the BIOS from an executable file is even easier. All Intel-built motherboards are updatable through a Windows-based application. Some other motherboard makers make this feature available, too, in which case you download the BIOS update app and launch it from the desktop.
A few motherboard makers include apps for updating the BIOS over the Internet. If the prospect of a wonky Internet connection failing in mid-update makes you nervous, don't worry: Usually the site will download the entire update before the update process starts.
Laptop and desktop systems with much older motherboards may require you to start up from a bootable floppy disk containing the BIOS update. The update may start automatically when you boot, or you may need to type a command at the command prompt; for details, print out the readme file for the update before you boot from the floppy.
To update a Mac, simply download the appropriate firmware update for your system and launch it from the Finder. The update will take a few minutes, and you must ensure uninterrupted power during that time.
Routers and peripherals
Some PC peripherals, including hard drives, network-attached storage, and high end monitors, may have updatable firmware. The instructions for installing updates vary considerably, so pay careful attention to the manufacturer's documentation.
WiFi routers are perhaps the easiest peripherals to update, most have the capability built into their router management interface. We'll use the update screen from a Netgear WNDR3700 as an example.
The Netgear interface tells you what the update may fix when installed, and it gives you the option to back out if you don't think you need the update. Network-attached storage devices use a similar interface for firmware updates.
Monitors rarely need updates. In fact, most monitors don't allow firmware updates, though I did perform an update on a high end monitor a few years ago, from within a Windows app.
These days we're starting to see more firmware updates for hard drives, especially solid state drives, and these can be nerve-wracking to install. Before making any changes to a critical storage device, back it up! In at least two instances that I'm aware of, SSD firmware updates could brick the hardware, resulting in permanent loss of any data the drives might contain. Because the firmware updating process can be arcane, you should carefully study the documentation before updating.
As an example, updating an Intel X25-E solid-state drive involves downloading an ISO image, burning it to a CD, and then booting from the CD to install the firmware update. So you must be comfortable burning the CD and booting from it before you get to the firmware update process.
Perhaps the oddest firmware update I ever installed was for a Razer Mamba wireless mouse. The process involved unplugging the USB cable from the docking cradle and plugging it directly into the mouse, no updating over the wireless connection.
Sometimes even expansion cards need firmware updates. I've had to update graphics card firmware and network interface card firmware. In both cases, I had to run the updates from a command-line prompt, but was able to do so from within Windows.
One last rule of thumb: Whenever you update a PC peripheral, reboot the peripheral after installing the update (assuming that the device doesn't restart automatically).
Mobile phones are usually very easy to update, and doing so is generally worthwhile: The updates may include critical security fixes, performance enhancements, and neat new features.
iPhones are easy to update: Plug your iPhone into your Mac or PC, and make sure iTunes is running. If a firmware update is available, click yes when asked whether you want to update.
Windows Mobile devices have become easier to install firmware updates on, but the process can still be somewhat esoteric. Many Windows Mobile updates may completely erase your phone, so be sure to do a sync to back up your contact, calendar and other data from the phone before you proceed. Some phones update through ActiveSync, others rely on a dedicated app. First connect your Windows Mobile phone to your PC via USB to back up (sync), and then update. Read all dialog boxes carefully, and follow instructions carefully.
The update processes for Android phones are all over the map. Though you can manually download the firmware and update it, waiting for your cellular network to roll out the update may be a better approach. If you want to download and manually update the phone, start by downloading the latest version and copying it onto an SD card or to the phone's storage via USB. Depending on the phone, performing the update will involve pressing some combination of phone buttons.
GPS units, digital cameras, media players, and handheld gaming devices
Normally, GPS devices are updated when new mapping data becomes available. Most off-the-shelf GPS units come with free updates for a set period of time, after that you may have to pay for each update. GPS data tends to be quite massive, and updating the device may take an hour or more.
I recently upgraded my Garmin Nuvi handheld GPS unit. You can check for an update by downloading a web browser plug-in that will determine whether your device needs an update (the GPS unit must be plugged into your PC via USB), or you can check by entering the device's serial number. In either case, you then download a very large file that is both a Windows app and mapping data. Attach your GPS unit via USB, run the app and let it update your firmware
Gaming devices like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP update automatically over their network as needed. All you need is access to WiFi. Though you can update these devices wirelessly, attaching them to wall power is preferable. If you go the wireless route, make sure that you have a healthy battery charge.
Digital cameras occasionally need firmware updates, whether they're simple point-and-shoot cameras or professional-level digital SLRs. In most cases, to update the camera's firmware, you download the update, copy it to a flash memory card, and insert the memory card into the camera. (Alternatively you can copy the update directly to a memory card in the camera, if it's connected to your PC.) Then either select an entry from the camera's built-in menu or press some combination of buttons to load the update. Usually, you'll have to copy the firmware file to the top level (root) of the memory card, not to a subfolder.
To update a media player like Apple's iPod or Microsoft's Zune, attach the player to your PC and run the appropriate app (iTunes or Zune software.) Then updates occur almost automatically, just click Yes if prompted to update. Zune updates are almost always required if you want to continue to use the Zune store, iPod updates are optional in many instances.
Other music players, such as the Archos, typically copy the downloaded firmware file to the device over a USB connection, at which point you disconnect it and the update occurs automatically. In some cases, you may have to run a Windows app.
Firmware updates for your home theatre
Firmware updates are relatively new to the world of living room electronics. After all, you don't typically think of "booting your TV", you just turn it on.
But as consumer electronics gear becomes smarter and more capable, it also has a greater need for firmware updates. The two primary candidates for upgrades are Blu-ray players and HDTVs, but as other gear (such as A/V receivers) become networkable devices, firmware updates become available for them, too.
For example, I recently updated the firmware in my Onkyo TX-NR3007 A/V receiver, which solved an HDMI sync problem the unit was having. Such updates sometimes even fix problems you might have assumed were just a quirk of your HDTV set, problems with audio/video on certain ports cutting out, unexpected freezing and power cycling, image processing errors and more.
Most consumer electronics equipment is updated in one of the three following ways (though other techniques, such as updating through a serial port, also exist).
ISO file burned to CD: Some older Blu-ray players didn't have a network capability and lacked USB ports. The only way to update them was to burn the downloaded firmware file to a CD and then install them via either a menu selection or a combination of remote-control button presses. Even some premium DVD players from a few years ago required this type of updating.
Despite talk (as the standard was being fleshed out) of using actual Blu-ray content discs to automatically install firmware updates, this feature seems not to have been realised in actual products.
Firmware copied to USB flash drive: This updating method is most common in situations where a network connection is unavailable or unreliable. I have updated several HDTVs via flash drive.
Firmware directly downloaded from the Internet: This is an increasingly prevalent method for updating firmware. Let's look at a couple of examples.
You can set up a Panasonic DMP-BD85 Blu-ray player to automatically inform you of new firmware updates, as long as it's connected to the Internet. However, the actual update screen is buried in the menus inside of the 'others' main menu selection, it's not in the 'network' menu selection.
In the case of the Onkyo TX-NR3007 receiver, the update firmware menu is appropriately listed in the 'Hardware Setup' part of the setup menu.
Quite a few users have game consoles as part of their home theatre setups. Updating the firmware on current generation units is simple, because it's required. For example, the Xbox 360 needs to have an always-on connection to the Internet in order to make available most of its services, though you can play single player games without a connection. When the console detects a new system update, a dialog box pops up and informs you that you'll be logged off the network if you don't install it.
These updates can add some fairly significant features, Microsoft revamped the whole user interface with the New Xbox Experience patch, and Sony added 3D gaming support to the PS3 (with 3D Blu-ray support coming in September), so it's a good idea to stay on top of them.
If you're at all concerned about updating the firmware on your device, it's worth cruising some key online forums to see whether the updates are working, or are useful. With devices such as smartphones, you might want to take a wait-and-see attitude. Apple supports iOS 4 on the iPhone 3G, for example, but users have reported significant performance decreases following the firmware update.
As we've seen, the process of updating your gear's firmware can be easy or complicated, depending on the age and design of the hardware. Nevertheless, it's usually worthwhile to perform the update, because you'll get bug fixes and, often, new features. So the next time a message pops up on your Blu-ray player or handheld device prompting you to update your firmware, give serious consideration to saying yes.