Firmware can make your PC and associated devices faster, more stable and more capable. Here's our ultimate guide to updating your device's firmware.

Firmware can make your PC and associated devices faster, more stable and more capable. It can even add features that weren't in the original specification.

It takes the form of a set of permanent instructions stored in the device's read-only memory. It's like a driver file but one that's embedded in the device, providing the hardware identical information each time it powers up. Software drivers can modify how your hardware works with Windows, while firmware governs the constant and unchangeable low-level functions of the device.

Firmware instructions are completely static, however. Some firmware, located in the device's PROM (programmable read-only memory) or EPROM (erasable programmable read-only memory), can be altered, or 'flashed'.

Flashing your firmware involves running software from the device manufacturer that extend its feature set, improves the device's lifespan or performance and that corrects any significant errors that may have been identified.

Firmware exists for PC peripherals such as printers, cameras, scanners and so on, as well as for PCs. You can (and should) update the for NAS (network-attached storage) drives, wireless routers and portable media players.

Flashing the firmware is also how you go about ‘jailbreaking' an iPhone, incidentally. Apple stays a step ahead by writing updates to overwrite their efforts.

Other items such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 can be firmware-updated to gain features such as native 1080p HD support and a new user interface via a single download.

When to update

The frequency of firmware updates varies by manufacturer and product. Expect an update at least every three months, though some will occur more frequently. Manufacturers often stress that you should ignore firmware updates unless you're having a problem with your hardware; but we recommend you run your hardware on the most up-to-date firmware you can find, since the increased stability (as well as the potential to gain new features) is worth it.

We also suggest that unless you're an expert, you stick to firmware updates issued by the manufacturer. Third-party hacks are more likely to cause problems and can void a warranty.

What you can update varies. CPUs benefit from motherboard firmware updates, but are not upgradable themselves. Components such as hard drives and optical drives are open to firmware updates, but the device manufacturers tend not to release fixes unless they correct a specific, disastrous problem.

The most useful and meatiest firmware upgrades relate to your motherboard, your networking devices and your portable media devices.

You could potentially increase ability (and stability) for overclocking your motherboard, integrate advanced utilities such as BitTorrent downloading into your network-attached storage, or, in the case of a device such as an iPhone, improve the response times and signal strength of your mobile gear. Firmware updates are also often necessary for new driver updates or additional device compatibility.

NEXT PAGE: A word of warning

  1. Everything you need to know
  2. A word of warning
  3. Flashing your firmware
  4. Bootable alternatives

Firmware can make your PC and associated devices faster, more stable and more capable. Here's our ultimate guide to updating your device's firmware.

A word of warning

Note the following words of warning before you hit Google and start downloading every firmware update you can find.

Although firmware upgrades aren't very difficult, they can cause catastrophic damage if you don't follow the manufacturer's instructions properly. Unlike a device driver, you can't just uninstall and reinstall firmware at a whim. Rolling back your firmware if your initial installation gets botched is much more difficult.

Check, double-check and triple-check that you're grabbing the correct firmware for your device. Some companies make it easy. Plug your iPhone into your computer, for instance, and Apple will automate the entire process for you.

Motherboard manufacturers, on the other hand, might force you to wade through drop-down menus of their entire product line to find your product's unique ID. Most devices won't let you install a different product's firmware, but in the off-chance that yours does, the last thing you want to do is flash your product (the technical term for upgrading firmware) with the wrong file.

Finally, firmware upgrades can act as a reset switch for your devices. While some flash utilities give you the option to save and restore your settings before and after the update, a typical firmware update will revert your device back to its factory-default settings.

That might not be the biggest concern for most users, but if you've spent a lot of time setting up custom networking configurations on your router, you'll want to save those settings prior to a firmware update.

Unless your router offers some kind of settings-backup functionality (check the menus and the manual to find one), you should copy your pertinent settings (such as port forwards, access controls and wireless network configurations) into a text document.

NEXT PAGE: Flashing your firmware

  1. Everything you need to know
  2. A word of warning
  3. Flashing your firmware
  4. Bootable alternatives

Firmware can make your PC and associated devices faster, more stable and more capable. Here's our ultimate guide to updating your device's firmware.

Flashing your firmware

How easy it is to flash the firmware depends on the type of device and the kindness of the manufacturer. A few scenarios are illustrated here, but the specific technique you'll use depends on what your device's creator provides to you.

The easiest way to update your motherboard's firmware is to use the manufacturer's Windows-based software-flashing application, which handles the process for you. If your manufacturer offers such a program (a big if), just follow its instructions.

If the device maker doesn't offer such a program, it might provide a bootable CD in the form of a downloadable .iso file (a CD or DVD image). There's a good chance that double-clicking that file will launch your disc-authoring software and prompt you to insert a CD.

On the other hand, if Windows doesn't know what to do with the .iso file, you'll need to download and install the freeware application ImgBurn, then double-click the file. Reboot your computer with the newly burned CD in the optical drive; the firmware-flashing process should start immediately.

Unfortunately, not all manufacturers give you something that easy to use. Some offer only a DOS-based flashing utility that you're supposed to run from a bootable floppy disk. Once you prepare the floppy disk, you reboot your PC with the disk in your floppy drive. You should then run the flash utility, remove the floppy disk and reboot again.

If your computer is less than a few years old, you're probably thinking, 'What floppy disk drive?' If spending money on an external floppy drive for a single firmware update isn't your cup of tea, you'll have to get creative if you want that update to work.

NEXT PAGE: Bootable alternatives

  1. Everything you need to know
  2. A word of warning
  3. Flashing your firmware
  4. Bootable alternatives

Firmware can make your PC and associated devices faster, more stable and more capable. Here's our ultimate guide to updating your device's firmware.

Bootable alternatives

In place of a floppy disk drive, you'll have to create a bootable flash drive. Grab HP's USB Disk Storage Format. You'll also need the HPUSBFW_BOOTFILES.zip archive or enter the file name into a search engine.

Unzip and run the USB Disk Storage Format utility. If Windows refuses to run this program because it requires administrator rights even though you're logged on as the administrator right-click the file and select Run as administrator.

Select your flash drive as the device and choose the option to format it as a FAT32 file system. Tick the box that says Create a DOS Bootable Disk and select the folder containing the unzipped files of the HPUSBFW_BOOTFILES.zip archive.

Once the utility is done, drag and drop whatever files the manufacturer of your device wants you to put on the 'floppy'.

The flash drive is ready to boot, but is your PC ready to boot it? To find out, leave the flash drive plugged in while you reboot your PC. If Windows comes up normally, you'll have to tell your PC to boot from the flash drive. To do so, restart your PC and watch for an onscreen message (it will be one of the first things to appear) telling you which key to press for your computer's boot menu, or which key to press for setup.

Press that key immediately. If you see both, immediately press the boot-menu key. If you get a boot menu, set it to boot from your PC's USB ports. If you press the key that calls up the setup screen, hunt in the resulting menu for a section called Boot Options or Boot Order; there, you want to make sure that USB devices are listed before your hard drive in the boot order. Save the settings and reboot your PC.

When you boot from the flash drive, watch the screen. You might have to press a button on your keyboard to activate the boot from your USB device.

Fortunately, NAS boxes, routers and mobile devices are much easier to update than motherboards. On most network devices, for example, you'll just have to access your device's configuration screen by typing its IP address into your web browser.

Once there, you should be able to locate the screen's built-in firmware-updating option. It'll probably be accompanied by a large 'browse' button. Click that, select the firmware file you downloaded, and click to update. It couldn't be simpler.

We could fill many more pages listing specific instructions for flashing half the devices open to firmware updates. All follow the same general principles, but manufacturers use different methods. What's more important is the safety of your devices.

Remember to save your settings and, whenever possible, follow your manufacturer's instructions to the letter, using the correct firmware for your device. With these precautions in mind, you'll quickly find updating firmware one of the easiest and effective upgrades you could possibly make.

  1. Everything you need to know
  2. A word of warning
  3. Flashing your firmware
  4. Bootable alternatives