Firmware and you: a comprehensive guide to updating your hardware

Firmware is a set of permanent instructions on a piece of hardware, stored in a device’s read-only memory

firmware” to the average PC user and you'll likely elicit a blank stare in return. But the concept isn't really that hard to understand, and once you have this knowledge, you can quickly improve your PC and any number of other devices, making them faster, more stable, and supplemented with features that didn’t come in the box.

Firmware is a set of permanent instructions on a piece of hardware, stored in the device’s read-only memory. It’s analogous to a driver file that’s embedded in the device, providing the hardware identical information each time it powers up. While you can modify the hardware’s interaction with your operating system via software drivers, certain lower-level functions of a device remain constant and unchangeable. That’s firmware.

But even though we call it "unchangeable," it isn't necessarily so. Some firmware, located in the device’s PROM or EPROM (programmable read-only memory or erasable programmable read-only memory), can be altered, or "flashed." You do this by running software applications from the device’s manufacturer; such programs load new firmware onto the device to extend its feature set, life span, or performance, as well as to correct significant errors.

Firmware isn't a PC-only concept. You can (and should) update the firmware in external devices such as network-attached and external storage hubs, as well as wireless routers and portable media players. You can even upgrade the firmware on your phone, depending on the model. (That's how people hack the iPhone--and how Apple tries to outsmart them. Firmware updates from Apple overwrite the customized firmware that some people use to jailbreak and unlock the devices, sending hackers back to the drawing board to search for a new, deployable approach.) Other products in your house--like Microsoft’s Xbox 360, which gained features such as native 1080p HD support and a new user interface via a single download--can also benefit from firmware updates.

The frequency of a device’s firmware updates varies by manufacturer and product. Though you shouldn’t expect to find updates on a weekly basis, you should perform a firmware search for all of your PC’s devices at least once per quarter. Manufacturers often stress that you should ignore firmware updates unless you’re having a problem with your hardware; but we recommend that you run your hardware on the most up-to-date firmware you can find, since the increased stability (as well as the potential to gain new features) is worth it.

Unless you're an expert, you probably don't want to use third-party firmware like the iPhone hacks mentioned above. Such offerings are typically more complicated to install--and more likely to cause problems--than are normal, manufacturer-supplied firmware updates. They can also void a warranty. Unless you know what you're doing and you don't mind the risks, stick to official firmware.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

David Murphy

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?