A firmware update will provide a device with new instructions on how to carry out its task, and generally these result in improved performance — though bugs can slip through from time to time.
Firmware is a combination of the persistent memory in a device and the code and data that is stored in it. This data and code are what tells many consumer electronic devices how to perform their functions. Much like the operating system on a computer, firmware tells the device what to do and how to do it, essentially working as the liaison between device hardware and the software or the user interface.
Examples of Firmware
Smartphone operating systems are generally considered firmware. The OS resides in non-volatile storage on the phone. It controls how the various hardware components of the phone work and translates commands from phone apps to the phone hardware.
Another example is a DVD player, where the firmware contains the instructions on how to play a disc, how to present menu options and how translate button presses into actions. Almost every microprocessor controlled electronic device today has firmware installed on it — though many will never need to be updated over their usable life.
How Firmware Updates Work
Once in a while, manufacturers will release a firmware update for a device. This new and improved version of the firmware often contains bug fixes and changes that improve efficiency, and sometimes adds new features to an existing device.
Generally, firmware updates are downloaded directly from the manufacturer or service provider and installed directly — as in the case of a smartphone downloading an update — or by connecting the device to a computer, or connecting a USB flash drive containing the update. The new firmware overwrites the old, and the improvements are available immediately after installation.
Drawbacks to Updating
Much like updating a software program, updating firmware can have its drawbacks. While updates are intended to improve device performance, at times an improperly tested firmware update can cause a device to perform erratically or even not work at all — also known as being “bricked,” in electronics jargon.
The device can also be harmed if the firmware update is interrupted. While a fairly rare occurrence, devices including phones to wireless routers can be rendered inoperable from a faulty firmware update.