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What are firmware updates?

...and why do I need them?

Firmware plays an important role in many of our electronics these days. But what exactly is it, and why is it so important?

What is firmware?

"Firmware," generally speaking, refers to the programs that help a device do what it's supposed to do; it's the background programming that runs the machine. That's in contrast with the "software" that we use to do stuff on the machine: games and programs on a computer, music files on an MP3 player, and the discs we watch on our Blu-ray disc™ players. This is a simplified definition and comparison, but it's reasonable enough for the purposes of this article.

Xbox%20360The old Xbox 360 gained lots of new features after a firmware update

Why does firmware need to be updated?

Most of the gear we use today is as much a computer as it is an audio or video device. As such, sometimes the manufacturer makes improvements to the programs that run the device (firmware). These improvements are released as firmware updates. We can expect to see firmware updates for everything from our Blu-ray players and video game consoles to our car stereos.

The same thing goes for software updates, and we're all probably more familiar with those. Our computers constantly check for updates for the programs we run: new versions of video players or iTunes®, for example.

To simplify the issue: whether an update is for a device's firmware or software doesn't really matter. They both work the same way. The point is that sometimes updates are released and we need to apply them to our gear.

Where do the updates come from?

These updates tend to come from one of two places:

  • Manufacturers — Firmware updates usually come from the manufacturer of the item.
  • Software providers — Sometimes other companies might release updates for the software that an item is using, such as when Adobe® releases an update for its Flash player, which many of us use for watching Internet videos.
Kenwood DNX890HD

Navigation receivers from Kenwood often use software from Garmin or other similar providers.

Kenwood's navigation receivers present a good example for how updates could come from multiple sources. These receivers use navigation software supplied by Garmin. Potential updates could take any of these forms:

  • Firmware updates for the functionality of the stereo come from Kenwood.
  • Garmin could release updates for navigation functionality, adding features or improving performance (firmware).
  • Garmin also releases occasional map updates to keep the directions as accurate as possible (software).

How do I apply the update?

Updating the gear like an MP3 player or camera is easy when you can connect it to your computer. If your television, Blu-ray player, or game console are connected to the Internet, then updating them can be this easy too. It'll depend on the specific equipment, of course.

For other gear, you will typically download the firmware update to your computer and then transfer it to your device via disc, thumb drive, or SD card. Simply load the update via disc drive or USB or SD card input, and it should take care of itself from there. Read the manufacturer's website for the specifics of your equipment.

A caution about applying updates

Before applying an update, especially in the case of firmware, you need to make sure that the update is for your exact model of device. Applying an update intended for a similar-but-different model could result in your gear becoming non-operational. The old firmware gets overwritten (replaced) by new operating instructions that aren't compatible with your model, which means your device won't work anymore. That's referred to as "bricking" your gear.

So always double check those model numbers before applying a firmware update.

How do I find out about updates?

There are three things you can do to stay abreast of firmware updates.

  • The best way to make sure you're alerted to important updates for your device is to register your purchase with the manufacturer. Fill out the registration card that comes with it or register it online at the manufacturer's website. That way, the manufacturer knows you own one of their devices and can alert you if a really important update comes along.
  • The other way to keep on top of updates is to occasionally visit the manufacturer's website and look up your equipment model or a list of released firmware updates. This might be the only way to learn about updates for minor issues.
  • If you really like your gear, join a message board or social media feed dedicated to that brand or device. Hanging out with other users is sure to keep you informed about any changes.

Back to my Kenwood example: upon going to Kenwood's website, I easily made my way to the support section and discovered messages about firmware updates for iPod® and Bluetooth® compatibility.

When in doubt...

Whether your favorite gadget is your iPod, your Blu-ray player, your car stereo, or your laptop, firmware updates are important for keeping it running smoothly. Just take care and don't apply any updates not meant for your specific model. Whenever in doubt, turn to the manufacturer for confirmation. And if you purchased the item from Crutchfield, our tech support crew can help you out too.

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