An overview of Firmware

Date: April 13, 2021

Author: Ipshita Biswas

Look around and count the number of gadgets you own. Guessing a number that can easily cross 5, how frequently do you feel the need to replace them? When an app gets older, and a new version gets released, the update is just the click of a button away. Thus, for each of the apps, you get a new version within a few months. But hardware, too, needs to upgrade itself alongside the software it's housing. Sometimes, based on a software's functioning, hardware components might need to alter the way it works. But, replacing hardware components isn’t such a hassle-free activity as replacing a software. And that's how firmware comes into the picture. Firmware updates have solved the need to frequently replacing the hardware.

What is firmware?

Firmware is a software program typically stored in the flash ROM (Read-only-Memory) of a hardware device which provides instructions on how the machine should operate. Unlike ROM, flash ROM can be rewritten as it's a type of flash memory. A firmware update happens only when its manufacturer initiates or releases it. When you install a new operating system (which is basically a software), you might also feel the need to update the firmware corresponding to a few hardwares like hard drives and video cards, etc. It's not always to make it compatible; sometimes the manufacturers release a firmware update even to make the hardware component work efficiently or consume less power.

What would happen without firmware?

Every gadget you see around, be it a desktop, a laptop, or a smartphone have multiple firmware running in them, keeping them afloat.

While starting a computer, a particular firmware in its motherboard is responsible for helping the system find the operating system and providing it with instructions on launching. Without firmware a motherboard would not know how to detect the hard drive or the video card found inside the computer. There’s even firmware controlling the operations and communications of disk or solid-state storage devices with the rest of the system. Every component starting from video adapter, network adapters (wired and wireless), USB controller, Bluetooth radio, comes with individual firmware. Mouse, keyboard, printers, webcams, monitors each have firmware running in them.

If the hard drives didn’t have firmware embedded in them, they wouldn’t know when to spin or when to stop, or how fast to spin. A wireless network card would never know how to use a particular radiofrequency for connecting to Wi-Fi. We often tend to think about a hardware device as a system that is just made of hardware. And we assume that it is just capable of working by itself. However, the truth is that almost none of the modern hardware devices would work without this particular software written directly onto them.

When is firmware update needed?

Bug Fixing/security – The downside of technological advances in the various security risks the devices have been exposed to. This necessitates the device makers to work on upgrading the security features from time to time.

Feature Addition – Features to enable better user experience and interactions.

Performance Enhancement – Enhancing the firmware's performance ultimately leads to the improved performance of the processor. It’s needed for all device peripherals to work together, thus, reducing the delays.

What are the various types of firmware?

Firmware varies with the type of hardware devices. There’s firmware in computer motherboards (it’s called BIOS or UEFI), there’s firmware in hard disks, solid-state drives (SSDs), CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drives, there’s firmware in network cards, routers, access points, range extenders, there’s even firmware in your gaming mouse and keyboard. And it's not just the computer-based devices that contain firmware. Any device capable of performing something useful has a firmware attached to it, including TV, Washing Machine, and even a Vehicle.

Firmware vs Device Driver vs Software

FirmwareDevice DriverSoftware
A type of software program that enables device functionalities without the need for installing additional softwareA type of software program that enables the communication between an OS and the hardwareA broad term used to define a set of instructions that enables a device to function in specific ways
Types of firmware include BIOS, EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface), etc.A device driver is hardware-specific. For instance, printer driver, graphics driver, etc.Types of software include application software, shareware, system software, etc.
There exist no categories for firmwareA device driver can be broadly classified into – Kernel-mode and User-modeA software can be of various categories like application software, computer programming tools etc.
A firmware is usually written using low-level languagesA device driver is usually written in a low-level languageA software can be written using both low-level as well as high-level language
A firmware is not meant for user interactionA device driver is not meant for user interactionA software is meant for user interaction
A firmware gives life to a hardwareA device driver ensures the smooth functioning of a deviceA software adds functionality to a device
A firmware usually occupies just a few kbsA useful software tends to occupy larger space in the memory ranging from 100kbs – a few gbs
Replacing a firmware is often difficultReplacing a driver is often difficultReplacing software is hassle-free

Further reading

References

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