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Tech Tips: What consumers should know about firmware updates

Triona Guidry
Triona Guidry

You may have heard the term “firmware,” but you might not be sure what it is. Many electronic devices rely on firmware, and outdated firmware can leave you vulnerable to internet threats.

Firmware is the software that allows certain electronic devices to run. It’s written onto a reprogrammable chip within the device, and remains present even when the device is turned off. Firmware behaves like read-only memory but can be updated through a simple process. Devices that may use firmware include routers, phones, tablets and smart home devices. Think about your network router. When you log onto your router’s admin panel, you’re accessing the programs stored in its firmware.

Computers also have firmware. Your hard drive contains your system software, like Windows or Mac OS, as well as your locally stored apps and data. The programs stored in the firmware are what enable the computer to perform its power-on self test, locate its hard drive and launch the system software. Without firmware, your computer doesn’t know how to find its hardware and start itself up.

Firmware tends to remain as-is unless you manually go through the process of installing an updated version. And this is where it can become a problem. Because firmware is installed at the factory, and because we often don’t realize it’s there, we don’t think to update it. It’s not like our system software which updates itself automatically, although some devices do notify us when updated firmware is available.

Another reason you might find yourself needing to update firmware is if you’re installing new hardware. For example, you might be replacing the graphics card in a PC. The PC is compatible with the graphics card, but requires a firmware update to use it properly.

Outdated firmware can be a gateway for viruses and malware. Because the firmware works with your hardware at such a fundamental level, some malware is written specifically to target it. A firmware bug can allow a virus to sneak past all of your system protections, lodging itself deep within the system where it can remain difficult to detect. Thus, these threats can sneak in before your antivirus software even has a chance to launch, much less quarantine the problem.

It’s particularly important to update the firmware of smart home devices (the “Internet of Things”). Smart devices contain so much private data, and the technology behind them is so new, that firmware updates occur regularly. Network devices such as routers also need regular updating, since they act as a safeguard between our local networks and the Internet.

How can you update firmware? Most devices will report their firmware version somewhere in their control panel. You can search the manufacturer’s support site for an updated version, then follow the installation instructions. This typically involves downloading the update and running the installer. Make sure your device is plugged into a reliable power source. If you lose battery power during a firmware update it can “brick” your device, meaning the firmware gets corrupted, sometimes past the point of recovery. For more detailed instructions, please see the support page for your particular device.

• Triona Guidry is a computer specialist and freelance writer offering tech support, web design and business writing services. For computer help visit her Tech Tips blog at lightningtechsupport.com.

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