Thanks to the prevalence of laptops, tablets, smart phones, and mobile devices, most people know at least a little bit about computers. Even if they’re a complete Luddite they can often grasp the basics difference between hardware (a display screen on a tablet, for instance) and software (that social media app they installed on their tablet after they brought it home from the store). However, there’s more than just hardware and software when it comes to computer components – there’s also firmware. Here’s exactly what the term means and how it works.

 

A Rough Definition

 

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, don’t worry – a lot of people aren’t going to know exactly what firmware is right off the top of their heads, even if they’ve heard the word before. In essence, firmware is a type of software, but it’s not like a mobile app that lets you check your email or send cartoon birds flying through the air. Instead, firmware is a specialized type of software that has one job: to help hardware function on a deep, usually invisible level.


Most types of hardware have some sort of firmware associated with them. Even pieces of hardware that seem to be just plug-and-play, like a hard drive or an optical disc reader, need to have firmware embedded directly into them – often through a hard-wired chip in their circuit board – to handle simple but key instructions like turning on, turning off, and other basic operations. To put it another way: you might use imaging software to grab your photos off a digital camera, but your camera wouldn’t even be able to turn on in order to take those pictures in the first place without the firmware providing instructions to it.

 

Keeping Firmware Updated

 

Firmware is drastically different than normal pieces of software that run on your computer or your mobile device as there’s usually no way to auto-update the firmware on a piece of hardware. Compare this to how your computer’s operating system is constantly downloading updates and then installing them whenever you reset, or how your mobile phone regularly updates its installed apps to the most recent version released by the developer, and you’ll see that firmware differs in a fundamental way.


For the most part, since firmware handles the basic functions of hardware there’s not necessarily much need for updating. However, as computer technology continues to develop at a rapid pace older firmware that isn’t updated could end up causing problems when a piece of hardware tries to interface with a newer piece of software. This leads hardware designers to occasionally provide firmware updates in the form of files that need to be downloaded and installed manually in order to keep your hardware current. However, not every hardware manufacturer releases regular or even occasional firmware updates, which can occasionally lead to the kinds of compatibility issues that may require replacing an old piece of hardware for a newer one.