106. Fun with firmware
By Andrew D. Wright
Updating firmware is a free way to add value to an existing
bought-and-paid-for device. The downside is that it has risks.
Firmware contains the most basic instructions a device needs to function.
It's usually in the form of flash memory that can be written to but will
hold its data when the power is off.
A computer BIOS is firmware. The BIOS is the part you see running when the
computer first starts up. It tallies the computer's memory resources and
hard drives, activates any special features like onboard sound or USB
ports then hands off to the computer's operating system.
Motherboard manufacturers usually issue two or three firmware updates for
each model of motherboard over the first couple of years of the
motherboard's retail life. These firmware updates can fix errors in the
original code or problems discovered after the motherboard hit the market.
They can also add new functionality like support for new CPUs or different
Flashing the BIOS to update your motherboard has risks. They are
manageable risks but risks just the same. Number one is you must have the
correct new BIOS for your specific motherboard make, model and version.
Triple check this. Flashing the wrong BIOS can turn your computer into an
inanimate brick and it's on you alone if it goes wrong.
Updating a BIOS has become a lot easier since the old days when users had
to assemble their own special boot floppy then cross their fingers it
wouldn't develop bad sectors while the update ran. These days most
motherboard manufacturers have simple Windows-based firmware update
When a firmware update runs, absolutely nothing must interrupt it until it
is completely done. So don't start a BIOS update when the lights are
flickering during a storm. It's also a good idea to first close all
unnecessary programs and services running on the computer and run the
program from a fresh computer startup to minimize the chances of a program
crash while the update is running.
Many other devices have firmware that can be updated. CD and DVD burners
have onboard lists of blank disk characteristics from different
manufacturers so the burner can set itself properly for each one. As time
goes on these lists get out of date so the burner may not recognize a new
make of blank disks without a firmware update.
Computer routers have firmware updates to fix security vulnerabilities.
Portable audio devices have firmware updates to add features. To find a
firmware update for a product check the manufacturer's website.
An interesting trend the last few years has been firmware updates that
don't come from the manufacturer but are written by someone else. These
unofficial firmwares can update older products no longer supported by
their manufacturers or in some cases completely change the original
product into something new.
A good example of this is the very common Linksys WRT54G wireless router
with no less than five major third party firmware development projects
adding new capabilities to it four years after it was first released.
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Originally published 15 April 2007