Understanding Firmware: Definition, Firmware vs. Software and Firmware Update

By Jenny | Posted to Home > Wiki, on October 13th, 2021

Summary: This post describes the definition of firmware, as well as the differences between software and firmware. You will also learn what firmware update is and how to update firmware.

what is firmware

You may have heard of the term firmware many times in life. To you, It seems like some kind of software, but what it really is and what does it do?

Firmware can be found anywhere, in a computer, a USB flash drive, your phone or even the traffic light. Reading what firmware is, the differences between firmware and software and how it serves a computer can help you better understand devices around you.

What is Firmware?

Firmware, is a kind of software embedded in hardware, providing low-level instructions for a device to communicate with other devices or perform some basic tasks. Without firmware, even the most basic device won’t function.

Like software, Firmware needs to be executed by a microprocessor or a microcontroller, but it is written to a piece of hardware device as opposed to software saved on a hard disk drive. It falls into somewhere between hardware and software and thus the name.

To avoid being deleted or tampered with, firmware was initially stored on ROM/ PROM, a non-volatile chip. However, firmware held by ROM/PROM can't be updated but replaced. So people switched to EPROM, and then the cheaper and easier to write and rewrite flash memory chips.

Firmware comes in various forms, depending on the hardware it resides. You can find it on personal computers, consumer products like iPods or mobile phones, automobiles, etc.

Here are some Firmware examples:

In Computers:

  1. The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) in older IBM-compatible personal computers
  2. The UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) firmware used on Intel-based Macs, and many newer personal computers
  3. Firmware on your hard disks such as solid-state drives and hard disk drives

In Home Appliances and Personal-use Products:

  1. Channel list, as well as the controlling sound and video attributes in TVs
  2. Systems of timing and controlling in washing machines

In Routers and Firewalls:

  1. LibreWRT, free software router distribution based on the Linux-libre kernel
  2. m0n0wall – an embedded firewall distribution of FreeBSD

What Function Does Firmware Serve in a Computer System?

Firmware on computers is used for storing all the basic codes for controlling your computer hardware, such as hard drives, keyboards, mice and monitors. When you press the power button, the CPU will start and fetch instructions stored on the firmware.

Then the firmware will start the monitor and keyboard and do some basic checks to ensure that the computer works properly. After that, it loads the operating system and transfers control to it. To conclude, firmware is essential for a computer to boot up.

Firmware vs. Software

Software relates to programs that are meant to be viewed, changed and interacted with users. Some examples are operating systems, word processors, databases, and other useful programs.

Software is designed to be updated more often and can be deleted without much consequence. It is often large and takes up substantial space on the hard disk.

Firmware vs. Software

Firmware is stored on a device to make it work. It's not meant to interact with users. Firmware changes infrequently and is smaller since it doesn't contain data needed for graphics and interface.

Unlike software, firmware loss or deletion often causes the device to lose function entirely. That's also why it's kept on components that are electrically isolated from other system parts.

Also, firmware is not designed to perform specific functions on the device, but the core tasks include instructing the computer's CPU when the operating system is not activated yet.

What is Firmware Update?

Firmware updates bring alterations necessary to the proficient use of the device and fix the bugs for better security. By updating to the most recent firmware, you can explore new features with an enhanced experience and reduce the need for expensive repairs.

What is firware update

Firmware such as BIOS and video cards are made to update easily as they evolve. But it's the opposite for storage devices, which have limited and straightforward functionality.

How to Update Firmware?

Before updating the firmware of your device, you need to ensure that the update is for your model. If you updated with a similar but different model, in which case, the microcode on the old model will be overwritten by the new incompatible program and thus put your device at risk of malfunction.

It's also necessary to read the manual and beware of all the warnings before updating. You can visit the manufacturer's official website for firmware updates.

How to Update Router Firmware?

Network router manufacturers often release firmware updates to improve network performance or add more features.

To upgrade your router firmware, you need to download the firmware update from the manufacturer > log into your router’s administrative console > find the section for Updating software > follow the onscreen instruction to finish the process. Lastly, reboot your router.

How to Update AirPods Firmware?

On your iPhone, go to Settings > Bluetooth > i icon > About to check if you need a firmware update for iPods. If an update is available, you can download and install it manually after putting your AirPods into the case and charging the case. However, you are recommended not to do so but wait for it to be automatically updated.

FAQ of Firmware

1. Can firmware be deleted?

No. Deleting firmware will cause your device to stop working.

2. What two different types of firmware may be used on motherboards?

BIOS: used in computers with older motherboards; all text menu setup; slower booting up

UEFI: replaced BIOS, used in most modern computers.

BTW, to use the GPT partitioning system on a hard drive, UEFI is required.

3. What is firmware password on Mac?

read this post: Mac Firmware Password: What is it and how to turn it on/off?

4. What do today's computers use to access the bios firmware interface?