Firmware is a type of software consisting of either a basic set of instructions or a program that is coded directly onto a piece of hardware, rather than being contained on the hard disk and running under the operating system. The firmware enables the hardware component, such as a hard disk or motherboard, to communicate with the operating system and the rest of the computer. Device identities are also contained in firmware. This is, for example, how Windows generally knows which model of monitor you’re using, even though you don’t normally install and drivers or software for such a device.
Firmware is stored on a type of read only memory (ROM) called “flash ROM.” Firmware, for the most part, is permanent, since it cannot easily be overwritten. In some cases, it is completely impossible to modify or overwrite the firmware on a device. Many devices, especially motherboards, however, store their firmware on a rewritable flash ROM, allowing users to update the firmware as required.
For the most part, average computer users will not need to concern themselves with firmware. The only firmware that you’re likely to interact with is the motherboard firmware. This is the BIOS which you access usually by pressing F2 or Delete when you switch on the computer. It allows you to change various advanced system settings and configure things such as clock speeds, boot priorities and password settings. The program that you use to change these settings (the BIOS) is stored on the motherboard’s flash memory.
Manufacturers of motherboards often release firmware updates periodically
These updates are normally provided to address compatibility issues rather than bugs. For example, although a new processor upgrade may be physically compatible with your existing motherboard, it may still not work correctly without a firmware upgrade. Firmware upgrades are typically provided on the manufacturer’s website.
Updating the firmware is done using a special tool. It’s essential to take care when you’re updating a motherboard’s firmware, since a problem with the installation can render your motherboard useless. A power cut during the update installation, for example, can even destroy the motherboard.
Other devices for which there are often firmware upgrades available include optical drives (CD and DVD drives etc.) As faster media becomes available, it is sometimes necessary for manufacturers to release firmware updates allowing these drives to read faster disks.