Hardware vs. Software vs. Firmware: What's the Difference?

Firmware, software, and hardware are different—but how?

When you're trying to solve a problem with a computer, the first thing you should try to do is determine if the problem is with the hardware or with the software. How you make that determination depends on the issue you're experiencing, but it often involves ruling out one or the other through testing.

Regardless of how you get to that answer, there's often much confusion when it comes to hardware versus software. It gets even more confusing when firmware is brought into the mix.

A dark mystery hand typing on a laptop computer at night
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Here's more on how each of these "wares" differs, something you need to know for troubleshooting any of your tech devices:

Hardware Is Physical: It's "Real," Sometimes Breaks, and Eventually Wears Out

Hardware is "real stuff" that you can see with your eyes and touch with your fingers. And being a physical item, you can also sometimes smell it as it dies a fiery death, or hear as it physically decays in its last motions.

Since hardware is part of the "real" world, it all eventually wears out. Being a physical thing, it's also possible to break it, drown it, overheat it, and otherwise expose it to the elements.

Here are some examples of hardware:

While a smartphone is a piece of hardware, it also contains software and firmware (more on those below). Hardware devices are also comprised of other hardware devices; a tablet or computer, for example, contains individual components like a motherboard, a processormemory sticks, and more.

While it's not always this easy, using one of your five senses—except taste; please don't taste any part of your computer system—is often your best way to tell if the hardware is the cause of a problem. Is it smoking? Is it cracked? Is it missing a piece? If so, the hardware is probably the source of the concern.

As sensitive as we've made hardware out to be in what you've just read, one great thing about hardware is that it can usually be easily swapped out. The software you lose may be irreplaceable, but most hardware is "dumb"—the replacement often being as valuable as the original.

See this list of computer hardware devices for more on some of the common parts of a computer system and what they're used for.

Software Is Virtual: It Can Be Copied, Changed, and Destroyed

Software is everything about your computer that isn't hardware.

Here are some examples of software:

Since software is information and not a physical thing, there are few barriers to it. For example, one physical hard drive might take two pounds of materials to create, meaning 3,000 hard drives would take 6,000 lbs of materials. One software program, on the other hand, can be duplicated 3,000 or 300,000 times, over as many devices, but be taking up essentially no more physical resources.

Software interacts with you, the hardware you're using, and with hardware that exists elsewhere. A photo-sharing software program, for example, on your PC or phone works with you and your hardware to take a photo and then communicates with servers and other devices on the internet to show that photo on your friend's devices.

Software is also extremely flexible, allowing it to be continuously updated and modified. While you certainly wouldn't expect your wireless router to "grow" another antenna or your smartphone to get a bigger screen as it charged on your nightstand, expect your software to regularly gain features and grow in size as it's updated.

Another great thing about software is its potential to last indefinitely. So long as the software is copied to newer hardware before the current device fails, the information itself could exist as long as the universe does. Equally amazing is that software can be destroyed. If there are no copies, and the software is deleted, it's gone forever. You can't run to the store and pick up a replacement for information that never existed anywhere else.

Troubleshooting a software problem is usually more complex than working through a hardware one. Hardware glitches are often times straightforward—something is broken or not and may need to be replaced. The steps required to solve a software problem depend on what information you're given about the error, what other software is running, what hardware that software is running on, etc.

Most software issues start with an error message or another indication. It's here that you should start your troubleshooting process. Search for the error or symptom online and find a good troubleshooting guide that will work you through the problem.

Some software is considered freeware, meaning it's free to download and use. Other kinds of software are better categorized as shareware.

Firmware Is Virtual: It's Software Specifically Designed for a Piece of Hardware

While not as common a term as hardware or software, firmware is everywhere—on your smartphone, your PC's motherboard, your camera, your headphones, and even your TV remote control.

Firmware is just a special kind of software that serves a very narrow purpose for a piece of hardware. While you might install and uninstall software on your computer or smartphone on a regular basis, you might only rarely, if ever, update the firmware on a device, and you'd probably only do so if asked by the manufacturer, probably to fix a problem.

You might upgrade your router's firmware, for example, if there are new Wi-Fi related features you need or fresh security enhancements recommended by the manufacturer.

However, most firmware updates happen automatically, like when you turn on your TV or reboot your phone, and the only reason you're made aware of it is because of an 'update' message on the screen.

What About Wetware?

Wetware refers to life—you, me, dogs, cats, cows, trees—and is usually only used in reference to the technology-related "wares" we've been talking about, like hardware and software.

This term wetware is still used most often in science fiction, but it's becoming an increasingly popular phrase, especially as human-machine interface technology progresses.

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