How do firmware updates take place on the hardware
What is firmware or microcode and how can I update my hardware?
Firmware is a type of software that runs on a hardware device that performs low-level tasks. For example, everything runs from a television remote control to a computer hard drive to a drone antenna with its own firmware. And the microcode is basically firmware for your CPU.
What is firmware
Software refers to the programs, applications, and other computer code that run on a device. Hardware refers to the actual physical devices. So if you have a Windows PC, the Windows operating system and all of the applications you use are software, and the PC itself and its components such as the hard drive, CPU, motherboard, mouse, and display are hardware.
"Firmware", as the name suggests, is something between software and hardware. Firmware is really just a type of software, but it is usually programmed into the memory built into that hardware and runs at a much lower level. In a PC, the motherboard, CPU, graphics processor, hard disk, mouse and other devices have their own firmware.
CONNECTED:What is UEFI and how is it different from the BIOS?
For example, when you boot up your PC, the firmware on your motherboard - either UEFI or BIOS - will boot and initialize your devices before transferring the boot to your hard drive and then to your operating system. Your solid-state drive has firmware that automatically manages where data is stored on the physical flash memory cells for optimal performance. The video BIOS is a type of firmware that translates video-related instructions before they are sent to your computer's graphics processor. Even your USB mouse has firmware that interprets the physical mouse input, communicates with your computer, and powers any LEDs on your mouse.
Firmware can be the entire operating system of a simple device
For some simple devices, the "firmware" may refer to the entire operating system of the device. For example, if you have a digital camera, the camera's “firmware” refers to all of the software that is running on that digital camera. This includes everything from the low-level photo capture capabilities to the camera's graphical operating system. Even aerial drones have firmware, which is the software that runs on the drone itself.
In this way, you can update the entire operation of a device system - such as a digital camera, router, printer, music player, or GPS navigator - often requires you to perform a "firmware update" or download a new "firmware" file from the manufacturer and install.
An operating system seems like it should be software, so this seems a little inconsistent. but that's because firmware is not an accurate term. While software and hardware are pretty clear, firmware is just a type of low-level software.
What is microcode?
With the Specter vulnerability, microcode has grown in importance. Intel CPUs require new "microcode" from Intel to properly defend themselves against Specter attacks.
CONNECTED:Windows Specter patches are available, but you may want to wait
Think of the microcode like firmware for your computer CPU of the computer. The microcode translates the instructions that the CPU receives into the physical circuit level operations that take place within the CPU. In other words, updated microcode can send various instructions to the circuits in the CPU. This can prevent certain Specter attacks by changing the way the CPU works. Microcode updates can also fix bugs and other bugs without having to completely replace the CPU hardware.
Microcode updates are usually included with UEFI firmware or BIOS updates. When your computer boots up, the computer's UEFI firmware or BIOS will load the microcode onto the CPU. However, it is also possible that operating systems such as Windows or Linux load new microcode when booting.
For example, if you want to get the latest Intel, Microsoft has an optional Windows update that you can install.
Should you update a device's firmware?
Whether or not you should update a device's firmware depends on the device and the manufacturer's recommendations.
In many cases, you never need to update the hardware device firmware. For example, your TV remote is running firmware and there is almost certainly no way to update it. There's no need to update it anyway. Your remote control is fine and you don't need to worry.
For many other hardware devices, updating the firmware can sometimes be helpful in fixing bugs and making minor improvements. For example, the manufacturer of your solid-state drive may offer a newer version of firmware that improves reliability or performance. Your graphics card manufacturer may offer a new video BIOS that fixes a bug. Or your router manufacturer may offer a firmware update with new management functions.
Many device manufacturers only recommend that you install a firmware update if you have a problem that needs fixing (or if you need a specific new feature), or if the manufacturer specifically tells you to install it.
Firmware updates are almost available for other devices, always a great idea. You probably want the latest and greatest firmware update for your digital camera, for example to improve performance and add new features. Microsoft recommends keeping your Xbox One controller firmware up to date to ensure that it will work properly with the games you play.
You should follow the manufacturer's recommendation for each device. Many manufacturers recommend updating their device's firmware only if there is no problem. If there is a power failure or an error occurs while updating the firmware, a clean restore is often not possible. In other words, a botched firmware update can “block” a device and make it unusable. It depends on the device.
How to update your hardware firmware
If you need to update a device's firmware, these general instructions are designed to help you. The exact process of updating a device's firmware depends on the device itself, and the device manufacturer should provide instructions on their website.
First, visit the manufacturer's website and find the support or download page for the specific product you are using. For example, if you have a Samsung solid state drive, visit the Samsung website and find the support page for your specific SSD model. If you want to update your motherboard's firmware or BIOS, visit the PC manufacturer's website and look for the exact PC mode. If you've built your own computer, go to the motherboard manufacturer's website and look for your motherboard model.
CONNECTED:How to check your BIOS version and update it
Look for some type of "firmware" update download on the support page. If you can't find one, there is likely no updated firmware available for your device. Download the latest version and read all of the release notes on the website.
After downloading the new firmware, open the Download a README file and locate it. If you can't find one, check the download page for a separate firmware installation guide. The manufacturer's instructions describe exactly what to do.
For some firmware updates, you might just need to run an .exe file in Windows to do everything for you. For others, you may need to create a bootable DOS drive with the firmware file, boot into the DOS environment, and run a command to update the firmware from there. If you want to update a separate device, you may need to copy the firmware file to a USB drive or SD card and transfer it to the other device.
If the firmware file you downloaded is just an .exe file and you can't find any instructions, you probably just need to double-click it and run it in Windows.
These are general instructions that you may need to perform different steps for different devices. For example, to update your Xbox One controller's firmware, you'll need to use an Xbox One or the Xbox Accessories app on Windows 10. Some programs may automatically prompt you to install firmware updates for associated hardware devices, if really necessary.
CONNECTED:Here's how to update your Xbox One controller's firmware without an Xbox One
Photo credit: GagliardiImages / Shutterstock.com, Hemin Xylan / Shutterstock.com, Hadrian / Shutterstock.com
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