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106. Fun with firmware

By Andrew D. Wright

Updating firmware is a free way to add value to an existing bought-and-paid-for device. The downside is that it has risks.

Firmware contains the most basic instructions a device needs to function. It's usually in the form of flash memory that can be written to but will hold its data when the power is off.

A computer BIOS is firmware. The BIOS is the part you see running when the computer first starts up. It tallies the computer's memory resources and hard drives, activates any special features like onboard sound or USB ports then hands off to the computer's operating system.

Motherboard manufacturers usually issue two or three firmware updates for each model of motherboard over the first couple of years of the motherboard's retail life. These firmware updates can fix errors in the original code or problems discovered after the motherboard hit the market. They can also add new functionality like support for new CPUs or different memory configurations.

Flashing the BIOS to update your motherboard has risks. They are manageable risks but risks just the same. Number one is you must have the correct new BIOS for your specific motherboard make, model and version. Triple check this. Flashing the wrong BIOS can turn your computer into an inanimate brick and it's on you alone if it goes wrong.

Updating a BIOS has become a lot easier since the old days when users had to assemble their own special boot floppy then cross their fingers it wouldn't develop bad sectors while the update ran. These days most motherboard manufacturers have simple Windows-based firmware update programs.

When a firmware update runs, absolutely nothing must interrupt it until it is completely done. So don't start a BIOS update when the lights are flickering during a storm. It's also a good idea to first close all unnecessary programs and services running on the computer and run the program from a fresh computer startup to minimize the chances of a program crash while the update is running.

Many other devices have firmware that can be updated. CD and DVD burners have onboard lists of blank disk characteristics from different manufacturers so the burner can set itself properly for each one. As time goes on these lists get out of date so the burner may not recognize a new make of blank disks without a firmware update.

Computer routers have firmware updates to fix security vulnerabilities. Portable audio devices have firmware updates to add features. To find a firmware update for a product check the manufacturer's website.

An interesting trend the last few years has been firmware updates that don't come from the manufacturer but are written by someone else. These unofficial firmwares can update older products no longer supported by their manufacturers or in some cases completely change the original product into something new.

A good example of this is the very common Linksys WRT54G wireless router with no less than five major third party firmware development projects adding new capabilities to it four years after it was first released.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email or click here. If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 15 April 2007


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