Firmware, as the name suggests, is somewhere between hardware and software. It's like an operating system located on your hardware that controls its basic functions. These days, all hardware devices use firmware — expansion cards and USB adapters, optical and storage drives, digital cameras and other peripherals, even your mobile phone.
Firmware used to be read-only — it limited what the hardware could do. Nowadays, however, most firmware can be updated to give your hardware new features and capabilities. A common example of a firmware upgrade is a broadband modem upgrade. Many people can install new firmware on an existing modem in order to take advantage of the new broadband technology ADSL2, rather than having to buy a new one.
You could make your DVD burner able to use faster DVD media, turn your ADSL modem into an ADSL2 modem in an instant, or give your computer the ability to handle USB 2.0, all by updating the firmware.
Please note: this information was current as of January 2006 but is still a useful guide to today's market.
When to upgrade
- If your hardware's working well, there's no need to update the firmware. But firmware can add capabilities to existing hardware — if you can't read a DVD that a friend burned for you, it could be a firmware-related issue.
- If you think a firmware upgrade could solve your problem, the first step is to gather information. Firmware upgrades performed incorrectly — for example applying the firmware for the wrong model - can render your hardware unusable.
- For this reason, it's vital that you identify your model and its current firmware before you proceed.
TIP: Firmware upgrades performed incorrectly — for example applying the firmware for the wrong model — can render your hardware unusable. For this reason, it’s vital that you identify your model and its current firmware before you proceed.
It can be tricky to locate your hardware model number.
The best spots to try are:
The box, if you still have it
- The user manual
- The hardware itself. The model number may be attached as a label, printed on the circuit board or engraved into the chassis.
- Hardware with its own software interface, may list the firmware on a screen within that software. This is often the case for digital cameras or broadband modems.
- The start-up screen. Some systems (but not all) display information about the model of motherboard, optical drive and other components installed in your computer when you press the pause/break key as your computer starts.
- The Windows Device Manager:
- Control Panel
- Performance and Maintenance
- System Hardware
- Device Manager
- System Devices.
Diagnostic software, such as Sisoft Sandra Lite, downloadable from www.sisoftware.net.
Once you have the model number, check your hardware's firmware revision at the manufacturer's website. It should include information about how to check your current firmware, if needed.