Routers and Peripherals
Some PC peripherals, including hard drives, network-attached storage, and high-end monitors, may have updatable firmware. The instructions for installing updates vary considerably, so pay careful attention to the manufacturer's documentation.
Wi-Fi routers are perhaps the easiest peripherals to update; most have the capability built into their router management interface. We'll use the update screen from a Netgear WNDR3700 as an example.
The Netgear interface tells you what the update may fix when installed, and it gives you the option to back out if you don't think you need the update. Network-attached storage devices use a similar interface for firmware updates.
Monitors rarely need updates. In fact, most monitors don't allow firmware updates, though I did perform an update on a high-end monitor a few years ago--from within a Windows app.
These days we're starting to see more firmware updates for hard drives, especially solid-state drives, and these can be nerve-wracking to install. Before making any changes to a critical storage device, back it up! In at least two instances that I'm aware of, SSD firmware updates could brick the hardware, resulting in permanent loss of any data the drives might contain. Because the firmware updating process can be arcane, you should carefully study the documentation before updating.
As an example, updating an Intel X25-E solid-state drive involves downloading an ISO image, burning it to a CD, and then booting from the CD to install the firmware update. So you must be comfortable burning the CD and booting from it before you get to the firmware update process.
Perhaps the oddest firmware update I ever installed was for a Razer Mamba wireless mouse. The process involved unplugging the USB cable from the docking cradle and plugging it directly into the mouse--no updating over the wireless connection.
Sometimes even expansion cards need firmware updates. I've had to update graphics card firmware and network interface card firmware. In both cases, I had to run the updates from a command-line prompt, but was able to do so from within Windows.
One last rule of thumb: Whenever you update a PC peripheral, reboot the peripheral after installing the update (assuming that the device doesn't restart automatically).
Mobile phones are usually very easy to update, and doing so is generally worthwhile: The updates may include critical security fixes, performance enhancements, and neat new features.
iPhones are easy to update: Plug your iPhone into your Mac or PC, and make sure iTunes is running. If a firmware update is available, click yes when asked whether you want to update.
Windows Mobile devices have become easier to install firmware updates on, but the process can still be somewhat esoteric.Many Windows Mobile updates may completely erase your phone, so be sure to do a sync to back up your contact, calendar, and other data from the phone before you proceed. Some phones update through ActiveSync; others rely on a dedicated app. First connect your Windows Mobile phone to your PC via USB to back up (sync), and then update. Read all dialog boxes carefully, and follow instructions carefully.
The update processes for Android phones are all over the map. Though you can manually download the firmware and update it, waiting for your cellular network to roll out the update may be a better approach. If you want to download and manually update the phone, start by downloading the latest version and copying it onto an SD card or to the phone's storage via USB. Depending on the phone, performing the update will involve pressing some combination of phone buttons.
GPS Units, Digital Cameras, Media Players, and Handheld Gaming Devices
Normally, GPS devices are updated when new mapping data becomes available. Most off-the-shelf GPS units come with free updates for a set period of time; after that, you may have to pay for each update. GPS data tends to be quite massive, and updating the device may take an hour or more.
I recently upgraded my Garmin Nuvi handheld GPS unit. You can check for an update by downloading a Web browser plug-in that will determine whether your device needs an update (the GPS unit must be plugged into your PC via USB), or you can check by entering the device's serial number. In either case, you then download a very large file that is both a Windows app and mapping data. Attach your GPS unit via USB, run the app, and let it update your firmware.
Gaming devices like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP update automatically over their network as needed. All you need is access to Wi-Fi. Though you can update these devices wirelessly, attaching them to wall power is preferable. If you go the wireless route, make sure that you have a healthy battery charge.
Digital cameras occasionally need firmware updates, whether they're simple point-and-shoot cameras or professional-level digital SLRs. In most cases, to update the camera's firmware, you download the update, copy it to a flash memory card, and insert the memory card into the camera. (Alternatively you can copy the update directly to a memory card in the camera, if it's connected to your PC.) Then either select an entry from the camera's built-in menu or press some combination of buttons to load the update. Usually, you'll have to copy the firmware file to the top level (root) of the memory card, not to a subfolder.
To update a media player like Apple's iPod or Microsoft's Zune, attach the player to your PC and run the appropriate app (iTunes or Zune software). Then updates occur almost automatically; just click Yes if prompted to update. Zune updates are almost always required if you want to continue to use the Zune store; iPod updates are optional in many instances.
Other music players, such as the Archos, typically copy the downloaded firmware file to the device over a USB connection, at which point you disconnect it and the update occurs automatically. In some cases, you may have to run a Windows app.