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.

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