What Is Firmware?

A definition of firmware and how firmware updates work

Firmware is software that's embedded in a piece of hardware. You can think of it simply as "software for hardware." However, software is different from firmware, so the two are not interchangeable terms.

Devices that you might think of as strictly hardware such as an optical drive, network card, TV remote, router, media player, camera, or scanner all have software that's programmed into a special memory contained in the hardware itself.

Illustration of a DSLR camera with Firmare update on its screen
Lifewire / Adrian Mangel 

Where Firmware Updates Come From

Manufacturers of CD, DVD, and BD drives often release regular firmware updates to keep their hardware compatible with new media.

For example, let's say you buy a 20-pack of empty BD discs and try to burn a video to a few of them, but it doesn't work. One of the first things the Blu-ray drive manufacturer would probably suggest is to update/flash the firmware on the drive.

The updated firmware would probably include a new set of computer code for your drive, instructing it how to write to the particular brand of BD disc you're using, solving that problem.

Network router manufacturers release updates to firmware on their devices to improve network performance or add additional features. The same goes for digital camera makers, smartphone manufacturers (like iOS and Android), etc. You can visit the manufacturer's website to download these updates.

One example can be seen when downloading the firmware for a wireless router like the Linksys WRT54G. Just visit that router's support page on the Linksys website to find the downloads section, which is where you get the firmware.

What Firmware Updates Do

As we touched on above, the purpose of any firmware update is to make a change to the existing software in some way. But what, exactly, any specific firmware update accomplishes depends on the context and the specific firmware version.

For example, if a media player were to receive a firmware update, it might include additional codec support so it can play music in new formats. You might install this type of firmware if you've been wanting to copy music to your media player, but the format the audio files are currently saved in isn't supported on your device.

Before applying a firmware update, you can usually read through a list of what changes are included in the firmware, so you can make the decision to update.

How to Apply Firmware Updates

It's impossible to give a blanket answer for how to install firmware on all devices because not all devices are the same. Some firmware updates are applied wirelessly and just seem like a regular software update. Others may involve copying the firmware to a portable drive and then loading it onto the device manually.

For example, you might be able to update the firmware on a gaming console by just accepting any prompts to update the software. It's unlikely that the device is set up in a way where you have to manually download the firmware and then manually apply it. That would make it much too hard for the average user to perform updates, especially if the device needs to be updated often.

Apple devices like iPhones and iPads also occasionally get firmware updates, as do Android phones and tablets. These devices let you download and install the firmware from the device itself so you don't have to do it yourself manually. Typically, firmware updates for mobile devices are obtained wirelessly, in which case they might be called firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) or over-the-air updates.

However, some devices, like most routers, have a dedicated section in the administrative console that lets you apply a firmware update. This is generally a section that has an Open or Browse button that lets you select the firmware you've downloaded. It's important to review the device's user manual before doing this, just to make sure the steps you're taking are correct and you've read all the warnings.

See how to upgrade your router's firmware if that's what you're doing, or visit your hardware manufacturer's support website for more information on firmware updates.

Important Facts About Firmware

Just as any manufacturer warning will display, it's extremely important to make sure the device that's receiving the firmware update doesn't shut down while the update is being applied. A partial update leaves the firmware corrupted, which can seriously damage how the device works.

It's equally critical to avoid applying the wrong update to a device. Giving one device a piece of software that belongs to a different one can result in that hardware no longer functioning like it should. It's usually easy to tell if you've downloaded the right firmware by just double-checking that the model number corresponding to that firmware matches the model number of the hardware you're updating.

Like we already mentioned, another thing to remember when updating firmware is that you should first read the manual associated with that device. Every device is unique and will have a different method of updating or restoring a device's firmware.

Some devices don't prompt you to update, so you have to either check the manufacturer's website to see if an update has been released or register the device on the manufacturer's website so that you can get emails when the new firmware comes out.

Ascher Opler is said to be the first person to use the term firmware, describing it as an intermediary term between software and hardware in a computer magazine article titled "Fourth-Generation Software" in 1967. For reference, the earliest known usage for software was a decade earlier, in a 1958 paper written by mathematician John Wilder Tukey, called "The Teaching of Concrete Mathematics".

FAQ
  • How do you update router firmware?

    Download the firmware update (directly from the manufacturer, if possible), then log into your router's settings hub and find the firmware section. It varies by manufacturer, but can often be found under Advanced or Management. Look for an option to update the software, then follow the on-screen directions to apply the firmware update and reboot your router.

  • How do you update AirPods firmware?

    First, before updating your AirPods, make sure you need an update by going to Settings > Bluetooth > Information icon > About. If a firmware patch is available, download and install it by putting the AirPods in their case, then connecting the case to a power source. Be sure to keep the case near your iPhone.

  • What are the two different types of firmware used on motherboards?

    Motherboard firmware is called BIOS, which stands for Basic Input Output System. The two types of BIOS found in a motherboard are typically UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) BIOS and Legacy BIOS.

  • How do you update firmware on a Samsung TV?

    If your TV has power and it's connected to your home's Wi-Fi, it should automatically download and install updates. If your TV is turned turned off, go to Settings > Support > Software Update > Auto Update (or Update Now) to update the firmware.

  • How do you turn off the firmware password on a Mac?

    To turn off the firmware password on a Mac, reboot your Mac in Recovery Mode, select Utilities > Startup Security Utility or Firmware Password Utility. Next, select Turn Off Firmware Password > re-enter the password > quit the utility > restart your Mac.

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