What are firmware updates?
...and why do I need them?
I've been with Crutchfield since 1999, where I began as one our advisors, helping our customers choose new gear. After a couple of years, I moved to the writing team where I spent a decade researching new products and getting hands on with car stereos, amplifiers, speakers, and subs. Yeah, I've been doing this for a while.
For the past few years, I've been the managing editor of Crutchfield's Car A/V web article content. I couldn't ask for a better job — we get to play with car audio gear every day! I'm a Virginia native from the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Outside of work, I love listening to music, playing board games, and installing new audio systems for my friends.
More from Robert Ferency-Viars
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.
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 old Xbox 360 gained lots of new features after a firmware update.
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.
Navigation receivers are a good example of the type of gear that may require firmware updates.
Car stereo navigation receivers present a good example for how updates could come from multiple sources. Potential updates could take any of these forms:
- Firmware updates for the functionality of the stereo would come from the manufacturer.
- Navigation software updates could add features or improvie performance (firmware).
- Occasional map updates 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 thumb drive or SD card. Simply load the update via the 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.
Here's a good example. By navigating to the support section at Kenwood, I discovered messages about firmware updates for iPod® and Bluetooth® compatibility with several of their receivers.
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.