Firmware – The Thing That Makes All Your Electronics Work!

Typically we think of hardware and software as separate entities that work together to provide us with the computing experience that we know and tolerate. Hardware is the tangible stuff you can touch like a keyboard or a hard drive while the software is the lines of code that tell the computer to make games, tweets, and CD doings actually appear on your screen. But you may have also heard the word firmware tossed around a fair bit.

So What Is Firmware?

firmware on my motherboard

Is it something you buy to show off your buns of steel after spending enough time at the gym.

No firmware is often thought of as something in between the software and the hardware. It’s actually a specific kind of software, but unlike your operating system or any other kind of program, it does not typically sit on a hard drive or an SSD instead firmware can usually be found on dedicated memory chips, and it’s that fact combined with that it sits very close to the metal that leads people to think of it as kind of like a hardware and software – hybrid unit.

But then what does close to the metal mean exactly?

how firmware works

Well, the code that makes up firmware communicates very directly with your hardware, unlike a regular program that has to go through API, the operating system, and device drivers. And the reason for this is that it’s meant to provide a fundamental basic link and method of control for the system’s hardware.

For example, inside of a P.C., there’s a chip that stores the systems unify or bios, which are specific types of firmware meant to load up everything, including hardware configuration, OS, etc. The BIOS starts running as soon as you press the button on your computer, initializing the hardware depending on how you’ve got it configured and checking for any errors. Once all that’s done, the BIOS hands virtually all of its control over to a much more complex operating system such as Windows or macOS.

bios on my asus motherboard

However, the bios and older systems provided a simple and reliable link between peripherals like the keyboard and system software even after the operating system started running.

Specific Types of Firmware

Other types of firmware take a much more active role in how a system functions. Your desktop monitor has to decode the digital signal that sent over an HDMI or display port cable to create the image that you see, which requires processing. So, therefore, it needs some firmware to run the display.

When you bring up that on-screen menu on your monitor to change the brightness, contrast, or whatever, what you see there is the firmware acting as the monitors the entire operating system.

So even very simple devices like TV remote control need firmware to turn your button matches into infrared beams that your TV can comprehend.

Why Firmware Needs to Be Updated

Because the firmware is so important to these fundamental linkages, it does sometimes need to be updated in order to provide extra functionality or to fix bugs. A great example is how BIOS updates are issued from other boards so that they can support a new CPU that uses the same socket, for example.

But because most electronics cannot function without firmware, it’s often recommended to leave it alone unless there is a specific problem that you know would be fixed with an update. Why? Well, because if the update fails due to something like a power outage, the system can end up being permanently bricked.

Now unlike a corrupted OS which can just be wiped and reinstalled, corrupted firmware often can’t be fixed as the system can no longer even understand that you want to wipe and reinstall the firmware. It needs not corrupted firmware for that!

And while some modern systems try to avoid this problem by having like a second BIOS or firmware as fail-safe, many motherboards and electronic gadgets lack this option, so make sure that you use caution when you’re updating your firmware.

  1. Make sure the battery is charged.
  2. Use a U.P.S. for your desktop P.C. or your television.
  3. Also, verify that you’re getting firmware from a reputable source like the manufacturer itself.

Firmwares That Can’t Be Updated

There’s other firmware that can’t be updated at all either because it stored on ROM or Reed Only Memory chips that physically cannot be updated or because there’s some kind of a software lock.

Some devices simply don’t need firmware updates like a really simple USB stick, while others use firmware to store proprietary features making them harder for competitors to figure out.

However, software restrictions on firmware can often be easily bypassed either by installing custom firmware that can sometimes enable additional functionality or by malicious actors that use the firmware as an attack vector.

Firmware often has no encryption whatsoever, and developers have mostly been concentrating on making operating systems and applications secure instead, making firmware a target for both hackers and spy agencies, especially because of firmware hack would obviously survive reformatting the hard drive and can be very difficult to detect. And because firmware directly controls hardware, hacked firmware can actually cause physical damage even.

There was a proof of concept a few years ago where a researcher hacked the firmware of an Apple MacBook battery to cause it to overcharge and permanently break.

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